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Seitan: The Other Fake Meat

Like Amanda, I became a vegetarian in my teens, but in my case it had nothing to do with a white lie; basically, I just thought meat was "gross" and realized I was old enough to make my own food choices. And although I now eat fish and some meat, I still like—even prefer, in some cases—"fake meat" ...

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Plate of seitan, courtesy of Flickr user veganwarrior


Like Amanda, I became a vegetarian in my teens, but in my case it had nothing to do with a white lie; basically, I just thought meat was "gross" and realized I was old enough to make my own food choices. And although I now eat fish and some meat, I still like—even prefer, in some cases—"fake meat" or meat substitutes, including tofu, TVP (texturized vegetable protein) and Quorn.

But my favorite of all? In the words of the old Saturday Night Live character, the Church Lady, "Could it be... SATAN???" Well, no, actually, it's seitan (pronounced SAY-tan, not SAYT-in, though I can't hear the word without thinking about its evil-sounding near-homonym).

Seitan is flavored wheat gluten, the protein portion of wheat that gives bread dough its elastic quality. It has been used as a meat substitute for centuries in China and Japan, where it was developed by vegetarian Buddhist monks.

Unlike tofu, which isn't fooling anyone, seitan has the surprising ability to mimic what I consider the good qualities of meat—the flavor, heartiness and ability absorb sauces—without the aspects I find unappealing—especially bits of fat and cartilage. It can be convincing to the point of distressing vegetarians; I was always suspicious of the vegetable gyozas I used to order from my neighborhood Japanese restaurant, though I now know that they contained seitan, not stealth chicken or pork. Even many tofu-haters, like my husband, enjoy seitan.

Seitan is made by mixing wheat flour with water to a doughy consistency, then rinsing it repeatedly until the starches wash away, leaving just the stringy gluten behind. It is then cooked in soy sauce, water and other flavorings. Seitan is sold in many natural-foods and Asian markets, or you can try making it yourself. If making it from scratch is too much effort, you can start with vital wheat gluten, a powder that already has the starch removed, instead of flour.

Seitan is higher in protein than tofu—in fact it's as high in protein as steak, without the saturated fat and cholesterol (and, obviously, without the ethical issues for those who avoid meat out of concern for animals or the environment). In general it's also less processed than some other meat substitutes, including frozen veggie burgers, which have recently come under scrutiny for containing soybeans treated with the chemical hexane.

The one serious drawback of seitan is that it is, obviously, not the food for people with wheat allergies or gluten sensitivity, such as celiac disease.

For those who can tolerate it, though, seitan can replace meat in all kinds of recipes. Most recently, I had it in a mock duck curry and, at a Chinese restaurant, in General Tso's Seitan. But it isn't limited to Asian dishes: it can also fill in for beef in Seitan Bourguinonne or even Irish Guinness Stew.
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About Lisa Bramen
Lisa Bramen

Lisa Bramen was a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.com's Food and Think blog. She is based in northern New York and is also an associate editor at Adirondack Life magazine.

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