A chameleon in the vegetarian kitchen
Bryanna Clark Grogan
Also known as "wheat meat", this wheat gluten product dates back to ancient China. Discover its modern-day versatility in a variety of tasty vegetarian recipes.
If there is such a thing as a chameleon in the kitchen, it would be seitan (a.k.a. wheat meat). Popular in vegetarian and vegan kitchens, seitan is simple and highly nutritious, loaded with protein, high in iron, and low in carbohydrates and fat.
The history of seitan
Seitan’s ancestor, wheat protein (gluten), can be dated back to ancient China, when it was produced laboriously from flour and water dough, rinsing off the starch and bran until only the gluten remained. The gluten dough would be fried or sautéed (often with seasonings) in oil before simmering in liquid, or it might be fried after simmering.
Still made this way in China, many varieties of wheat gluten (also referred to as mock meat) can be purchased frozen or canned in Asian grocery stores, and if you’ve ever eaten mock meats in a Chinese restaurant, that is what you are enjoying.
A twist on a classic
Seitan (say-tahn) specifically referred to wheat gluten seasoned with soy sauce, and was coined in the 1960s by Japanese macrobiotic teacher George Ohsawa. The term seitan is thought to have come from the combination of several words: sei, meaning “made of,” and tan, the first character in the Japanese word tanpaku, which means “protein.” Seitan is now the general North American term for all wheat gluten products.
In Japan you must buy seitan in macrobiotic grocery stores, but here in North America we can find this simple but versatile meat alternative in most health or natural foods markets.
Why wheat meat?
Gluten naturally contains umami compounds that enhance taste, so seitan is hearty and flavourful, moist, but with a satisfying chew. Western-style seitan has evolved into more complex cutlets, roasts, and loaves, and gluten is used, often along with soy protein, in many commercial meat alternates.
For the purposes of this article, we will be using the simplest form of wheat meat, macrobiotic-style seitan, either store-bought or homemade. Whether used as chunks, slices, slivers, or ground, in stir-fries, stews, salads, kebabs, or meatless loaves, “meaty” seitan is truly a chameleon in the kitchen, enabling you to re-create your favourite international dishes for vegetarians.
What is vital wheat gluten?
Vital wheat gluten is the dried protein of wheat flour, from which starch and soluble components are removed by washing with water (no chemicals). It is then turned into a cream-coloured powder by drying and grinding. Most brands now state the gluten’s country of origin on the package or bag.
Be sure not to confuse vital wheat gluten with gluten flour, as the two are not interchangeable. To figure out if what you’re buying is really vital wheat gluten, keep in mind the following indicators:
Gluten flour is very pale in colour and feels silky when rubbed (dry) between your fingers. Dough made with gluten flour mixture is yellowish in colour, sticky, and easy to squish into a thin shape.
Vital wheat gluten (also referred to as pure gluten powder) is creamy-beige in colour and almost clumps up when you rub it (dry) between your fingers. Dough made with it is greyish in colour and rubbery, with a texture that will not easily flatten out, which is what you want!
If you have a chance to check the package (if bought in bulk, ask to see the bag it was shipped in), 1/4 cup (60 mL) of vital wheat gluten will contain 23 g of protein. Gluten flour (or high-gluten flour, as it is sometimes called), will contain only 12 to 14 g of protein for the same amount.
Vegetarian proteins beyond tofu
Are you curious about vegetarian sources of protein to sustain your active lifestyle, but crave more than simple beans and tofu? Try seitan. A single 4 oz (115 g) serving of seitan provides a whopping 26 g of protein as well as 3.6 mg of iron, which carries oxygen to active muscles. Try seitan in this Middle Eastern-inspired dish, which boasts all the necessities of a post-workout meal: a high quality protein (seitan), whole grains (bulgur wheat), and antioxidants (lycopene-rich tomatoes).