Research: Seitan

Monday, February 6, 2017
Whether you’re an omnivore, a vegetarian, or a vegan, chances are you already know a fair bit about tofu. You may not like it, but at least you understand it. That’s not the case with another specific meat substitute. Seitan is a relative newcomer to the meatless scene – at least in America. So I thought it’d be the perfect subject to tackle with some deeper scrutiny. What makes seitan tick?

“Seitan” is a very Asian-sounding word, and there’s good reason for that. It’s a lot more fun to say than “wheat gluten”. OK, there may be actual geographical reasons, too, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that “wheat gluten” sounds like a bummer, and “seitan” sounds awesome. It first appeared in cuisine during the sixth century, when it popped up as an ingredient in Chinese noodles. From there, it spread to Japan and other Asian countries, where it has been enjoyed for hundreds of years, especially by strict vegetarians, such as Buddhists.

The word “seitan” was coined in 1961 by George Ohsawa, and it took another eight years to be exported to the States as a finished product for consumption. Oh, we were eating it way before that, just not calling it seitan. Western doctors often prescribed it for diabetics in the 1830s and Seventh-Day Adventists were big supporters as well.

But let’s get back to those Asian roots. In Chinese, it’s called mien chin which translates roughly to “dough tendon”. It’s often deep-fried into small puffy balls, though it’s also popular steamed or baked. Pre-prepared seitan is often eaten at Chinese breakfast as an accompaniment to congee. In Japanese, seitan is called fu, and is generally eaten in one of two forms. It can be consumed raw, in which case it’s often formed into whimsical shapes or filled with sweeter things like red bean paste. Or, it can be leavened with baking powder and dry baked into long sticks. In this form, it’s often added to broth, such as miso soup.

Here in America, seitan enjoyed a popularity boom in the 20th century. It’s high in protein, and became a natural meat substitute alongside tofu. It’s sold in blocks, in strips, or in familiar shapes such as burger patties. And it’s not just for humans; seitan is often used to provide protein and bind other ingredients in pet food.

That may make it sound unappealing, but like tofu, seitan seems to take on the flavors of whatever you cook it with, which allows for some delicious experimentation. If your morals or your diet doesn’t allow for consumption of animal products, seitan has been a reliable fallback since King Arthur was in charge.