There is a Taiwanese word that I have come to incorporate into my daily vocabulary, both English and Chinese, and that word is Q. Like so many other Taiwanese colloquialisms, this word is expressed on paper with a single capitalized roman letter. Usually doubled up when used in regular conversation, QQ is a unique oral sensation that cannot be mistaken for any other. When you put something in your mouth—cold or warm, salty or sweet, dry or wet, it doesn’t matter—if the substance first pushes back as you seize it with your teeth, then firms up for just a moment before yielding magnanimously to part, with surprising ease and goodwill, from the cleaving corners of your mandibles—that is Q. It is light but not insubstantial, flexible, supple, resistant, yet ultimately compliant. The word Q fits this experience perfectly. Like the foodstuffs it so aptly describes, it permeates the mouth, softly pillowing up against the palate, no sharp edges or hard stops, as easy to pronounce as it is to digest.
Anything can be Q as long as you can put it in your mouth. Memory foam mattresses are not Q, but a live sea cucumber scooped up from its temporary home in a water-filled blue bucket for your inspection can—no, should—be QQ. “Delicate flavor,” the wind-wizened vendor tells you, “very Q!”
Americans do not like their meats Q. Meat, whether fowl, fish, or beast, may be firm or tender, tough, stringy, weak, or chewy, but it must always feel like meat, never anything else. And Q, inherently democratic or else curiously ambiguous, belongs to no one food group. Q, while not squishy, is softer than it is springy and several degrees removed from chewy. For some reason, visiting foreigners routinely connect it with slimy. For Westerners slimy is definitely not good. Slimy is viscous, like spit, and wet, like swamp water. Slimy conjures any number of things the average Westerner most definitely does not want to put in her mouth: earthworms, mucous, mold. For anyone who is already a little dubious of the exotic extremes to which Chinese people will occasionally take their cooking, Q only serves as one more thing to avoid. Indeed, the Taiwanese are no less bold or quirky in their tastes than their mainland counterparts, but even though Taiwanese cuisine doesn’t shy away from slimy, Q can stand alone. A particular favorite of mine are the slimeless, powdery pastel cubes of sugary agar agar that wobble between your fingertips without leaving them sticky.