An Ode to Q

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A collage of Taiwanese foods (ba-wan, beef noodle soup, and boba milk tea) on a blue background.
(Photos by ugurv/insjoy/bonchan/iStock; design by Rebecca Kao)

KQED's Eating Taiwanese in the Bay is a series of stories exploring Taiwanese food culture in all of its glorious, delicious complexity. New installments to the series will run daily from May 19–28.

I

n 1994, after I returned from a study abroad program in Taiwan, the very first question my father asked wasn’t about the flight or what I’d learned in my language and culture classes.

“Did you meet any boys?” he asked, his expression hopeful.

I couldn’t blame him for asking. The six-week program—subsidized by the island government to increase awareness and support for Taiwan—was unofficially known as the “Love Boat.”

None of the hundreds of college students that summer—hailing from the United States, Canada and elsewhere in the Chinese diaspora—boarded a luxury ocean liner like the one from the television rom-com. Instead, the nickname referred to the relationships that blossomed in the steamy subtropical heat.

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Sneaking out past curfew with my newfound friends, we’d get late night snacks from the endless stalls at the Shilin Night Market, the country’s largest and most famed street food destination. Fish balls bobbing in steaming cauldrons of hot pot; tendons in big bowls of beef noodle soup; and grass jelly drinks, jiggly cubes that you chewed while you sipped.

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As the Communists came to power in 1949, my parents—then children—had fled with their families to the island. Later they would attend graduate school in the United States, where they would marry and settle down.

As much as my parents embraced the opportunities here, they hoped their children might retain a connection to what they’d left behind. The study tour, which began in 1967 and had its heyday during the 1990s, deployed potent political soft power, vital because Taiwan’s governmentknown officially as the Republic of Chinalacked diplomatic recognition by most countries.

That summer, I learned why: During the Cold War, the United States favored the regime in Taiwan and didn’t formally recognize Beijing’s. When diplomatic relations opened with the Communists in 1979, the U.S severed ties with Taiwan, which China still views as one of its provinces.

Over the decades, tens of thousands of students have participated in the study tour, including celebrity chef Eddie Huang, who writes about it in his memoir, Fresh Off the Boat. Although I didn’t find romance, I left with lifelong friends and a lifelong love for the cuisine I encountered on my trip—especially the springy, bouncy yet gooey texture known as Q. 

The term Q is derived from the word k’iu in the Taiwanese Hokkien dialect for something wavy, curvy and bendy—say, in the shape of grilled squid. Q foods, both savory and sweet, often involve glutinous rice flour, yam flour, potato or corn starches. The texture has been compared to al dente pasta, gummy bears and marshmallows in Western cuisine, but to my mind, Q is even more liminal, with a this-and-that, here-and-there quality. Items exemplifying this texture are known as QQ—that is, very Q.

According to A Culinary History of Taipei: Beyond Pork and Ponlai by Steven Crook and Katy Hui-Wen Hung, Q foods are “more substantial than melt-in-the mouth and [have] a delectable chewiness without being gummy.”

It’s food that fights back, that takes the energy of your bite and returns it to you. Q is nothing like the smooth, processed American foods that go down easy, eaten mindlessly: soft serve ice cream, huge cups of soda to guzzle at red lights or boneless Buffalo wings. With Q, you pay more attention—not only to prevent choking but because your delight in it makes you more mindful.

On humid nights in Taipei, steamy as the inside of a teakettle, I chomped into chewy balls of glutinous rice flour rolled in powdered peanuts and relished deep-fried fish balls on a stick. Just thinking about Q makes me crave it.

During my summer in Taiwan, boba tea drinks—with the addictive Q of their tapioca pearls—hadn’t yet widely caught on, but would soon skyrocket in popularity before sweeping onto other shores, first in Asian enclaves and later in suburbia. Boba teas are now so popular that recent rumors of shortages due to shipping issues from Asia have led to collective bemoaning among fans. Those craving Q should consider its myriad forms available in the Bay Area.

Stir fried rice cakes with mustard greens and slivers of pork at China Bee in San Mateo have been a favorite at our Love Boat reunions. Even though we’ve known each other more than half our lives, each time we meet it’s like no time has passed at all.

Ba-wan is another beloved treat, a gigantic mochi meatball that is a traditional southern Taiwanese snack: a fistful of pork, bamboo shoots and mushrooms, surrounded by a chewy, gelatinous wrapper—often made with rice or tapioca flour, potato and corn starches—and doused in a tangy sauce made with ketchup, rice vinegar and soy sauce. 

Café Taiwan in Pleasanton offers a glistening version for takeout. While you’re there, also get the Hakka dumpling soup, which has the look of the Frog Lady’s eggs from The Mandalorian; Grogu surely would approve of its ooey, chewy goo.

Taiwan Café in Milpitas recently began shipping its frozen ba-wan, five spice rolls and wan luan pork hock (named for a rural eastern township known for its unctuous pork knuckles). You can also pick up these items and more on weekends via an ordering form through its Facebook group.

Beef noodle soup is now considered Taiwan’s national dish—tender shank, tendons with a delicate Q texture, and broth punched up with ginger, star anise and red chilis. It arrived in the aftermath of WWII, the creation of former soldiers who became food vendors in a time marked by turmoil. Locals chafed against the Nationalist government, which violently cracked down on and imprisoned political dissidents. At the same time, in the military villages, an influx of newcomers from across the straits brought their taste for wheat-based noodles, soup dumplings and more.

 “Food was one of the first ways of bridging conflicting groups on the island,” notes Cathy Erway in her cookbook, The Food of Taiwan: Recipes from the Beautiful Island. Here in the Bay Area, Liang’s Village in Cupertino makes a stellar beef noodle soup, with loads of tender yet springy tendon. Mumu Meals—founded last year by Bay Area brothers Jeffrey and Daniel Hsu—ships and delivers a frozen adaptation of their mother’s recipe. “We hope that someday, this dish is just as well known as Japanese ramen or Vietnamese pho,” Daniel Hsu says.

A black sugar boba ice cream pop, streaked with caramel, against a leafy green backdrop.
Q to the max: a black sugar boba ice cream pop. (Vanessa Hua)

To finish off a meal, I’m a fan of black sugar boba milk ice cream bars, which went viral on Instagram and TikTok with their photogenic, psychedelic swirls. In late May of last year—the first time I’d ventured into a Ranch 99 since the lockdown began—I raced down the aisles, double-masked, frantically grabbing items as if I were in some kind of game show.

At the freezer case, I picked up two boxes of Tiger Sugar bars—“brave as a tiger,” its motto proclaims—but had no inkling of their popularity until I got to the checkout and realized the woman in front of me was buying five. (The treat is also available at Tiger Sugar, an outpost of the Taiwanese boba shop which opened last October in Cupertino.) 

The bar itself was creamy, with the taste of whole milk, and not too sweet despite ribbons of  caramel-y brown sugar, and the black boba tender—the epitome of Q—and not the frozen marbles that I feared. It was pure indulgence on a stick. As soon as I finished it, I wanted another; I wished I’d bought more boxes.

At that early stage of the pandemic, when our choicesand our realityfelt so constrained, certain fads spread across social media: sourdough bread, chickpea stew, and whatever else floated across our feed.

Some foods we tried once, but never ate again. Now as we haltingly emerge on the other side of it, my pulse still quickens for Q.

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Vanessa Hua is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and the author of Deceit and Other PossibilitiesA River of Stars and the forthcoming novel Forbidden City.