Seitan is a common vegetarian meat substitute made from gluten, the main protein in wheat. While fairly new to western palates, it has been used for centuries throughout Asia, especially among vegetarian cultures like Buddhist monks. Historically, the term “seitan” specifically referred to a Japanese dish made from wheat flour dough simmered in a broth of soy sauce, ginger, garlic and kombu (seaweed). Nowadays, “seitan” is often applied to any product made from extracted wheat gluten.
Making seitan is a very labour-intensive process, involving continuous washing and kneading wheat flour dough until all the starch has been removed. Many home cooks make a shortcut version of seitan by reconstituting vital wheat gluten with liquid. Vital wheat gluten is extracted gluten in powder form, a common baking ingredient that’s readily available in supermarkets. Commercially prepared seitan is also available at natural food stores and Asian markets.
Seitan is popular among vegetarians and vegans for its chewy, meaty texture. It’s often the main ingredient in vegan beef jerky. Still, it’s not completely the same as meat and does take some getting used to, says Kevin Kao, manager of Loma House. “It’s kind of a foreign texture to westernized palates,” he says. “If you’ve ever had a shiitake mushroom, it’s kind of close to that texture.”
Much like tofu, seitan is very neutral in flavour – so you can flavour it however you want. Maya Paramitha, manager of Padmanadi Vegetarian Restaurant, notes that this is why it’s such a versatile ingredient. “It acts almost like a chicken breast,” she says. “It absorbs all the flavours that you put it in.”
Seitan can be a hard sell to those who aren’t familiar with it. Loma House started putting pictures of its more esoteric dishes on its tables, including seitan, which it serves as an appetizer flavoured in different ways. Padmanadi doesn’t serve straight seitan; its mock meats are a blend of textured soy protein and seitan. “A lot of people are intimidated or scared to try this thing, but I would say be adventurous; try it out,” Paramitha says. “It’s something that you don’t get every day.”
Recipe courtesy of Maya Paramitha
Mix all ingredients except gluten in a large bowl. Add cup gluten and mix well. Add another cup gluten and mix. Add the remaining cup gluten and knead by hand for 20 seconds until the dough is soft and elastic. Roll into a long sausage and cut into eight smaller pieces. Wrap in aluminum foil. Put in a steamer basket and steam for 40 minutes.
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