"Rubbery” is almost like a swear word in the culinary world, but that may be a narrow view of a quality that can actually be desirable in cooking: the “Q texture.”
Context is important when it comes to food texture. It's why there's a fine line between the "creamy" delight of polenta and the "mushy" horror of left-out cereal, despite their aesthetic similarities, and why a slice of sourdough's crunch is unwanted "staleness," while a potato chip's is a perfect "crispiness." And don't even get people started on the ideal bite of a bowl of al dente spaghetti.
This may explain why "rubbery" is almost like a swear word in the culinary world, typically accompanied by a scowl when describing overcooked eggs or cheap shrimp. But this may be a narrow view of a quality that can actually be desirable in cooking: the "Q texture."
Perhaps you've had tteokboki—a dish of thick, chewy rice cakes—while dining at a Korean restaurant, or bitten into pale, slightly sweet mochi in a Japanese food court. Even better (in some opinions), you may have experienced the strange joy of milky Taiwanese bubble tea. If so, you're already acquainted with Q. In Taiwan, the letter—which looks like a regular Q nestled amidst a menu of Chinese characters—refers to a particular sensation of squishy, springy, gumminess, as found in any of the aforementioned dishes. Fish cakes are another denizen of the Q realm, with their, yes, "rubbery" mouthfeel.
How the letter Q became the ambassador for this particular food texture is a mystery, but it does make its way onto menus and packaging despite being an informal term, as ruǎn Q translates to "soft and chewy." A University of Pennsylvania linguistics blog helpfully explains that you can double your Qs, too—"QQ" candy, for example, is really, really chewy candy. Nougat is sometimes stylized as "mini-Q."
As the Huffington Post points out, Taiwanese eaters are far more forgiving of—and even demand—a certain springiness in many foods. As Cathy Erway writes in her upcoming cookbook The Food of Taiwan, "Taiwanese eaters are almost as concerned with texture as they are with taste."
Are we wholly unaccustomed to it in the West? Well, we do love our gummy candies (non-chocolate candy is a $6.1 billion industry). But this texture rarely makes its way into savory dishes this side of the Prime Meridian, unless you were to consider a particularly firm bowl of gnocchi.
And if you're looking to acquaint yourself with other exciting new sensations that you'd never really noticed or experienced before, consider kokumi, a term growing in prominence that refers to the potential "sixth" (after sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami) type of flavor. Kokumi is derived from the Japanese words for "rich" and "taste," and is a way to specify just that—best described through examples of ingredients that bring it to the (literal) table, such as garlic, onions, and scallops.
Sure, those things are all delicious, for many reasons that are kind of definable and kind of not. But, for the same reason that truffle and cheese are indisputably umami and broccoli is not, it's hard to use words to describe a word for a relatively new idea. Think of if a new color appeared in the rainbow—it might remind you a bit of blue, or make you feel kind of like orange, but still be neither of those things. But it's easy to taste that buttery scallops and aromatic garlic are both "rich," despite the fact that one is a shellfish and the other is a plant.
Look, like a Magic Eye poster, you'll either get it or you won't. But before you go complaining about your rubbery rigatoni or pungent pesto, think twice about whether it's really a bad thing.