The True Story of Q

What does it mean for a food to be described as “Q” and what is the derivation?

A decade or so ago, the restaurant reviews by local writers in the Taiwan newspaper where I was features editor often dwelt at great length on the chewy nature of certain dishes.

To vary the wording, the reviewers resorted to ever more tortuous ways to describe the texture of the delicacy in question. Among the adjectives plucked from the pages of Roget’s Thesaurus were “leathery,” “gristly,” and “globular” – terms that reviewers in Western publications might only apply with malice aforethought.

As a then relatively recent arrival in Taiwan, I sensed that something was clearly going on that I was sadly ignorant about. When I asked the authors about their perceived need to describe the essential “bounciness” or “springiness” of food in such detail, they responded that it was all about “Q” – the degree of chewiness of a given food and how it feels against the teeth and tongue.

Q is considered one of the keys to good food in Taiwan, on a par with taste, color, and consistency. Given how frequently Q is referred to on menus and in general conversation, it appears that Taiwanese appreciate mouthfeel or texture more than most people. The Italians do have al dente, which literally means “to the tooth” and describes pasta or rice that is slightly undercooked, but it’s not easy to find other examples.

In her book The Food of Taiwan: Recipes from the Beautiful Island, author Cathy Erway addresses the issue of Q as a fundamental aspect of Taiwan cuisine. “To say that a food is ‘Q’ is certainly a compliment,” she writes. “Taiwanese eaters are almost as concerned with texture as they are with taste. Hence we find examples of rather tasteless elements in dishes that only add textural appeal.”

For their part, Steven Crook and Katy Hui-wen Hung discuss the “enthusiasm for Q” in their book A Culinary History of Taipei: Beyond Pork and Ponlai. They note that diners’ appreciation of Q explains, for example, why those in the know prefer the gelatinous tendon version when ordering the nation’s signature beef noodle soup. In addition, say the authors, “It goes some way to explaining the enduring popularity of oyster omelets and pearl milk tea.”

The writers also identify the glutinous long-grain indica variety of rice as possessing all the attributes of “delectable chewiness without being gummy.” Used today mainly in making rice-based delicacies for wedding and funeral banquets, it was superseded by ponlai strains of rice during Japan’s 1895-1945 colonization of Taiwan.  

As to the origin of using the term “Q,” the writers point to a word in the Taiwanese dialect (also called Hokkien) of Chinese that’s pronounced k’iu. The English letter Q began to appear on restaurant menus and food-stall signs because no familiar Chinese character could capture that sound, they conclude. 

Delving deeper into the derivation of the word, Hung noted by email that the Taiwanese k’iu originally meant “something wonky, wavy, curvy, bendy.” For instance, the phrase “QQ” was used to describe grilled squid when it curls up. She likens it to “describing permed hair: when the curls are released they are QQ – bouncy and wavy.”

Related to bubble tea?

But Hung postulates that the practice of applying the Q sensation to food is a more recent development – possibly less than 15 years old. “Personally, I think it could well have developed with the rising popularity or promotion of bubble tea, referring to the tapioca balls,” she says.

“A food that is Q indicates freshness and sometimes firmness,” Hung notes. “Freshness is an essential quality for good, tasty food for the Taiwanese palate. Indeed, imagining meat or noodles that have been sitting for a long while, can they be Q? Doubtful. ‘Chewy’ is used to describe Q a lot, but I would say it must be firm chewy, not tough chewy and not fibrous chewy either.”  

Making his own attempt to explain Q, journalist George Liao says: “In Taiwanese, when we say something is very ‘Q,’ we mean it tastes good-chewy, which is usually associated with being delicious. Some snacks have to be chewy to be delicious, and when that quality comes out, we usually praise the food by saying it’s very Q. Sometimes it also means sticky, as some Chinese or Taiwanese foods need to be sticky to be delicious, such as mochi” (the Japanese-style confectionery made with glutinous rice).

One dish regarded as particularly Q is pork meatballs, which are mixed with starch, giving them a somewhat rubbery texture. They are a little difficult to bite through since they seem to resist a little. Most convenience stores offer a selection of such meatballs, processed springy fish cakes, and assorted vegetables that are submerged in stainless steel trays of bubbling heated water. Skewered and eaten anytime, anywhere, they are known as “Q-on-a-stick.”

Fish balls are another Q concoction, made from white fish formed into a smooth paste, then mixed with ice water and sweet-potato starch or tapioca to provide the desired chewiness. The fish balls can be served in a soup or deep fried.

But Q doesn’t stop at savory. Black boba tapioca balls star in bubble milk tea and have taken the world by storm. Foreigners have learned to adjust their parameters of the acceptable, coming to enjoy the sensation of sucking the slippery and globule-like pearls up a straw and swishing them around in the mouth.

For a real Q dessert feast, however, try a bowl of shaved ice (baobing 刨冰 in Mandarin or tsuabing in Taiwanese) topped with a panoply of Q foods in a variety of shapes, sizes, and flavors. A syrup of condensed milk and sugar – with a faint osmanthus blossom taste – accompanies the dish, along with small caramel puddings, tofu, grass jelly, and copious amounts of fruit.

While most foreigners will be familiar with the Q-like give of jelly in all its many forms, it’s unlikely they would have sampled the wide variety of taro and yam balls used in the dessert. Made of sweet-potato starch and tapioca flour, they are dusted with cornstarch, shaped into squares, spheres, or even pyramids, and then colored orange, purple, and yellow.

Another common ingredient in shaved ice desserts, tangyuan (湯圓) or glutinous rice balls, are also ever present at weddings and during the Lantern Festival. The glutinous rice flour is mixed with water, formed into balls, and cooked in boiling water. They can be big or small, and may or may not come with a black sesame or peanut paste, or other fillings. But what they must be is Q, or springy to the bite. 

As times change, however, so has usage of the term Q. For older Taiwanese, it is solely an attribute of favorite foods. For instance, retired homemaker Tsai Mei-chu associates Q with mochi and tangyuan. “It refers to food,” she says. “Chinese borrowed the word from English because we didn’t have a character for it.”

But her daughter-in-law, Huang Li-jun, says her kids more often use “Q” or “QQ” as synonyms for “cute.” And for millennials like Tracey Tsai, who works in finance, “QQ” tends to be a kind of emoji used in social-media communications to show empathy. A website describes it as “two big eyes and two tears hanging below it, expressing sadness and negative emotions.”

So, is Q now a Chinese character? Robert Matthews, a former university instructor, alludes to a rare Chinese character, 飲蚯, pronounced kiu in Mandarin. It is a fusion of the characters yin (drink, 飲) and qiu (sip, 蚯).

Victor Mair, a professor of Chinese at the University of Pennsylvania and editor of the Columbia History of Chinese Literature and Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature, would appear to have delved deepest into the subject of Q. He notes on his language blog that “the argument might well be made that it is indeed a Sinogram (Chinese character),” since Q is in such common usage throughout the Chinese-speaking world, whether as meaning chewy or cute.

“I would say that whether Q may be considered a Chinese character or not, it certainly has become a part of the Chinese writing system,” he concludes.

Mair has traced the gravitation of Q from Taiwan to China, where it further evolved in different ways. For instance, QQ is an instant messaging software service from Tencent that first started up nearly two decades ago. It now provides shopping, music, and even banking services using the tagline: “I’m QQ – happy every day to communicate.”

On the mainland, Mair found, “Q bi” (Q 幣 or Q money) is a kind of special currency used by customers to buy extra service. “Q” can then be used as a verb, as in “Q wo ba!” or “pay me with Q bi!” It’s also used as an emoticon and a name for cocktails.

“If anyone should try to outlaw Q from all Chinese writing, then there would be no way to talk about the most famous work of modern Chinese fiction [Lu Xun’s True Story of Ah Q] or the best-selling Chinese mini-car, and one would not be able to describe the texture of mochi, gummy bears, and lots of other delectables.”

[FAQs about Q]

Q: It’s the 17th letter in the English alphabet, but what does Q mean in Chinese?
A: It’s a chewy texture that authors Steven Crook and Katy Hui-wen Hung describe as the “texture many Taiwanese adore. Food that is Q is more substantial than melt-in-the-mouth and has a delectable chewiness without being gummy.”

Q: What’s the difference between Q and QQ when referring to food?
A: They’re the same, doubling up just emphasizes the “bounciness.”

Q: Does “Q” have other meanings in the Chinese language?
A: “三Q” is a sort of cross-cultural homophone for “thank you,” while Chinese Wikipedia calls it a “common alternative to ‘thank you’ on the internet.” Social news aggregator Reddit further suggests that “香Q” (xiang Q) is used in some internet circles instead of 三Q. Certain online communities reply: “一四O K”  (yi si OK, or it’s okay).

Q: Does “Q” have other meanings in Taiwanese?
A: According to Ned Danison, on Victor Mair’s Language Log: “No Q” is a Taiwanese reply to the English “thank you,” equivalent to “You’re welcome.”

Q: What about Cantonese?
A: Be careful about using Q in Cantonese, where the letter refers to the male organ and is often used as a swear word.

Q: How long has Q been used in Chinese writing?
A: At least since 1921 when the first installments were published of The True Story of Ah Q (阿Q正傳) by novelist Lu Xun. The protagonist Ah Q (he doesn’t know how he got his name) is a peasant with ideas above his station who has a series of misadventures.

Q: Does Q have other uses?
A: It’s an emoticon that suggests sadness or crying, as with Q_Q, QAQ, or QQ, where the QQ may refer to double bitterness or “ku ku” (苦苦). According to Victor Mair’s Language Log: “Q can also mean ‘cute’…a kind of clever semi-English, semi-Chinese hybrid.”