Once popular, seitan has fallen out of style, but is delicious
Food fads come and go, and sometimes there are casualties along the way. The example I’m thinking of in particular is seitan, once a popular meat substitute, now largely shunned by the vegetarian community. You see, the main ingredient in this stuff is wheat gluten, which we all know by now is something akin to a tool of the devil.
Actually, I came to grow quite fond of this ingredient when I lived in Boston, back in the day. It was a staple at vegetarian buffets, simmered in various sauces, and was readily available in oriental markets, in cans labeled “Mock Duck.” What it ever had to do with duck escaped me, as it resembled the waterfowl in no respect. Nevertheless, I would frequently utilize it in stir-fries, to the satisfaction of my meat-shunning friends.
Wheat gluten has been a popular protein source in China since at least the sixth century. Baked, fried, simmered or steamed, it has a texture uncannily close to meat. The Japanese also revered the foodstuff, using it in untold recipes.
The name seitan itself is Japanese, part of the macrobiotic school of cooking. It was coined by one George Ohsawa (1893-1966) in the early 1960s. The first syllable, sei, means to “become,” while the second is derived from tanpaku, or “protein.”
The ingredient made its way to the U.S. in the early 1970s, where it first became popular as a seasoning for rice. Later, Nik and Joanne Amarteff, used in their “Tan Pups” line in 1972, and John Weissman launched his “Wheatmeat” brand a couple of years later. These were all sold at the Erewhon store in Boston, to great acclaim.
I’m going to add a caveat here; anyone who even suspects they might be subject to wheat allergy should give this stuff a wide berth. One time, I was having dinner with my ex-wife, when she overindulged in seitan. Her face immediately turned beet-red, and I had to take her outside to get some air.
You can still find boxes of vital wheat gluten in any good supermarket in quantities perfect for this recipe. It’s ridiculously easy to make, and will lend itself to any recipe requiring saucing.
1 tbsp olive oil (or any oil)
1 large yellow or white onion diced
2 cloves garlic minced
1/3 tsp salt
1 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp blackening seasoning (or any other seasoning blend, or additional paprika)
2 tbsp tomato paste
1 cup low-sodium vegetable broth
1 tbsp low-sodium soy sauce
1/4 cup chickpea flour
2 tbsp nutritional yeast
1 and 1/2 cups vital wheat gluten
Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and salt, and cook for 5-7 minutes, stirring frequently, until onion is softened slightly.
Reduce the heat to medium-low and add the garlic and stir. Cook for 2-3 minutes, until the garlic is softened and fragrant. Add the sweet paprika and other spices to the pan, stir, and cook for 60 seconds or until fragrant. Remove from the heat.
Use a spatula to transfer the onion-garlic mixture, including oil, to a blender or food processor. Add the tomato paste, vegetable broth, soy sauce if using, chickpea flour, and nutritional yeast. Blend until smooth.
Transfer the mixture to a mixing bowl and add the vital wheat gluten, then stir until evenly combined. Once stirred, use your hands to knead the mixture until it becomes more firm and a little bit springy, about two minutes.
Prepare boiling water and a steamer. Be sure to add plenty of water since this will be steaming for a long time. Form the dough into a vaguely log-shaped blob and then roll it up tightly in a piece of tinfoil, twisting the ends tightly. Depending on the size and shape of your steamer, you may need to separate it into two pieces.
Once the water is boiling, steam the wrapped gluten dough for 1 hour, carefully flipping it over halfway through.
Let the cooked seitan cool to room temperature, then unwrap it and place it in an airtight container in the refrigerator for at least eight hours. For best results, slice the seitan as needed for recipes rather than pre-slicing it. The homemade seitan in log form will keep in the fridge for up to a week.
Recipe adapted from yupitsvegan.com.