Juicy and Tender, Seitan Is Quite Possibly the Best Fake Meat -- But There Is a Downside

What if the next big thing to revolutionize the lives of vegans and vegetarians was waiting in the wings? What if this next big thing was amazingly high in protein, amazingly low in fat and carbs, relatively low in sodium, and cholesterol-free, yet with a taste and texture more like real meat than any other analogue ever devised? What if the next big thing was chewy and exuded meaty juices and sometimes even required a knife to cut?

Imagine, then, its power as a secret weapon to convert carnivores and to solace those guilt-ridden vegans and vegetarians who still dream of bacon, brisket, sloppy joes, beef Stroganoff, souvlaki, pepperoni, pigs-in-blankets, corned-beef hash and chicken drumsticks: things that tofu cannot replicate, not even with the best imagination in the world.

Tofu is not God's gift to herbivores, though this feels blasphemous to say. It's slippery. It rushes down the throat so bland and unobtrusive as to be the gastronomical equivalent of an apology. It's also made of soybeans. And while at least one recent Journal of the American Medical Association report credits soy foods with reducing the risk of death and recurrence among breast-cancer patients, soy still hasn't emerged unscathed from the wave of bad press that has blamed it, these last few years, for hormone imbalances and health problems ranging from thyroid dysfunction to Alzheimer's disease to gynecomastia (aka man-boobs). My doctor, an anti-big-pharma, pro-nutrition kind of guy, always rails against tofu because it's a processed food. And seriously: How much of whatever is essential about the soybean really reaches you once it has been soaked for 16-plus hours, ground, boiled repeatedly to make it into milk, mixed with coagulants, curdled and drained? The preferred coagulant among major tofu manufacturers is calcium sulfate, aka gypsum, which is the main ingredient in plaster-of-Paris.

Unlike tofu, the next big thing can be whipped up in any household kitchen rather easily, for super-cheap. I've made some of the next big thing myself. More on that later, but to construct a high-protein, low-fat pound of it cost me 98 cents.

The next big thing is not actually new. It's been around for over 1,000 years, having been developed by Buddhist monks in Asia who knew about tofu but sought other alternatives in accordance with the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, in which the Buddha tells the Bodhisattva Kashyapa: "Those who keep close company with me must not eat meat. Even if, in a gesture of faith, almsgivers provide them with meat, they must shrink from it as they would shrink from the flesh of their own children" — because, the Buddha asserted, "eating meat destroys the attitude of great compassion." In China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, the next big thing is ubiquitous, fashioned into astounding facsimiles such as mock duck and goose with stippled "skin."

The next big thing — which got its big 20th-century boost from the macrobiotic movement, whose pioneer George Ohsawa gave this ancient food a new Japanese name meaning "protein-made" — is called seitan, pronounced not "Satan" but "say-tahn." The good news is that it's not made of soy, nor any substance preschoolers use to make handprint plaques, but of wheat gluten.

The bad news is that it's made of wheat gluten.

It's the next big thing, and we will see a lot more of it as word spreads about its versatility and uncanny meatishness. Yet millions of people, were they to taste even a mouthful of the next big thing, would become seriously sick. A coworker of mine, who like the rest of those millions is gluten-intolerant, would have diarrhea for days.

But more about the good news. Culinary Institute of America graduate Steve Seligman gave me a tour of the USDA-standard industrial kitchen in Berkeley, California where his Savvy Savories seitan products — which include cutlets, Italian- and Louisiana-style "sausages," and "Stir-ins" flavored to replace meat in the cuisines of various cultures — are made. We watched workers preparing wet and dry ingredients to be kneaded inside a shiny columnar Hobart machine that Seligman adapted for this task because "it's such a pain in the neck to make seitan by hand." Seitan can be created shortcut-style by adding liquid to vital wheat gluten, a silky powder from which all the grain's starches have already been removed. But making seitan in the labor-intensive traditional manner means starting with ordinary flour and gradually washing away its starch via the lengthy and strenuous process of kneading the dough underwater; every time it clouds, the water is discarded and replaced until, even after kneading, it stays clear.

Gluten is the protein portion of the grain. While ordinary flours are 12 to 14 percent protein, vital wheat gluten is 75 to 80 percent protein. At Savvy Savories, Seligman uses vital wheat gluten to make seitan that will eventually be ground up for sausages and Stir-ins. For cutlets, he prefers the traditional method, because working with regular flour — in his case, organic high-gluten whole-wheat flour — facilitates the formation of those long firm strands that shout "Flesh!" (Some of Seligman's best customers are cheese-steak shops.) We watch a worker submerge forearm-sized seitan logs, fresh from the Hobart, into a stainless-steel vat of dark broth flavored with wine, organic onions, organic garlic, organic ginger, and GMO-free soy sauce that Seligman calls a "hot marinade." Here it will simmer until fully cooked and floating. At that point, the still-blandish and still-grayish seitan is sliced and left to soak in a spice-enhanced bath for two days. The spice mixture seeping into its pores depends on which meat one is attempting to imitate and in which region's cuisine it might be used: Ham tastes unlike lamb, after all, and Southern fried chicken tastes unlike General Tso's. Seligman's Italian "sausage" — which he sells on its own as well as in ready-to-eat sandwiches with onion, peppers, and Provolone on locally baked bread, is based on fond memories of childhood trips to the South Philadelphia Italian Market with his stepfather.

"He'd always order the tripe and I'd always have the sausage and peppers." And so he still does — sort of.

"It isn't easy," Seligman says against the clang and hum of cleavers and machinery. "But you can make it like the meat you miss."

His company, along with others that make seitan — and those that make pizza, bagels, and bread — was hard hit by a recent spike in flour prices, which nearly tripled in 2008 after remaining remarkably stable for over 25 years. Along with weather-related causes, rising demand for corn and ethanol radically reduced the amount of wheat-growing acreage worldwide.

Yet seitan is the one product line whose sales have increased over the last year at Sweet Earth, a natural-foods manufacturer based in Pacific Grove, California. The recession gives customers yet another reason to seek alternatives to expensive meats, suggests Sweet Earth's owner Caren Hicks, who predicts a seitan renaissance.

"To the American consumer, seitan is now what tofu was thirty years ago. I remember my parents looking at tofu back then and saying, 'Eeewww! What is that?!' People would eat dead animals," Hicks marvels, "yet at that point they were afraid of a soybean." Seitan is permeating the market faster and easier than tofu did, "because it's so much more versatile. It can look like lunchmeat. It can be made into a thick cutlet. You can take that cutlet and bread it in an egg batter, if you're not vegan, and fry or sauté it in olive oil and it comes out like a chicken-fried steak." Sweet Earth sells smoked, peppered, and multi-flavored seitan in bulk and in slabs and patties along with seitan teriyaki "Chickn" and barbecued-seitan sandwiches.

Hicks first learned about seitan from Austrian friends who had just graduated from an American macrobiotic cooking school. Popularized in this country during the 1950s by Japanese boosters Michio Kushi and the previously mentioned Ohsawa, the monk-style low-fat, high-fiber, predominantly vegetarian macrobiotic regimen focuses on whole grains, legumes, fermented soy products, seaweed, seasonal produce — and seitan.

"They said it was this ancient product made for thousands of years, and they were looking for a kitchen to produce it in." She offered them hers. When the couple returned to Europe, Hicks bought their recipe and began making seitan herself. Its appeal was immediate, and its versatility was not the only reason why. In the macrobiotic rubric, she explains, tofu is considered a "cooling" food, while grains are considered a "warming" food: "That's why seitan gives you this stick-to-the-ribs satisfaction and feels so filling. And it's a great product for dieters because even though it is made of grains, it's low-carb. So it's all-around good for you."

She pauses.

"Unless, of course, you can't eat gluten."

And that's a big unless. It's the elephant in the living room — and the kitchen and dining room. According to the National Institutes of Health, more than two million Americans suffer from celiac disease, an incurable autoimmune disorder that occurs when the fingerlike villi lining the small intestine deteriorate and flatten upon exposure to the gluten in grains. When full-length and functioning properly, these villi absorb nutrition from food passing through the intestine: Damaged villi can cause a wide range of long-term, life-wrecking symptoms including diarrhea, nausea, anemia, infertility, depression, ADHD, nerve and balance problems, osteoporosis, seizures, and migraines. Millions more are affected adversely by gluten for other reasons besides celiac disease, such as allergies. And although they've got their own acronym — NCGS, for non-celiac glucose sensitivity — their actual numbers, like those of celiac sufferers, are impossible to calculate because a great many have never been tested. Estimates vary wildly, ranging from two million to as high as 30 million in the United States alone. (Then again, a highly gluten-intolerant population means big money for some, as gluten-free products now comprise one of the food industry's fastest-growing and most recession-proof sectors. Having soared some 28 percent every year since 2004; it's now worth well over $1.5 billion and is estimated to reach $2 billion by 2012.)

Every next big thing is, for some, the worst big thing. So seitan is paradise, but also poison.

"It could kill me," says Elaine Monarch, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Celiac Disease Foundation, a national patient-support group aimed at helping more people get diagnosed. "Others would get excruciating migraines, and that's stressful enough."

"But it's hard to get diagnosed, because doctors aren't familiar enough with celiac disease, and it's so often confused with irritable bowel syndrome or fibromyalgia." Both present similar symptoms, Monarch says. And while doctors can provide medications "to deal with the pain and suffering" caused by those symptoms, no drugs have yet been devised to specifically treat celiac disease. According to the Mayo Clinic, the only way to manage it is with a totally gluten-free diet.

That's not enough, argues Alice Bast. As a celiac-diesease sufferer and executive director of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, Bast has reason to complain. When she began experiencing terrifying symptoms during a pregnancy 20 years ago, her doctors were baffled. Before this, she'd always been active and healthy and had displayed no food sensitivities. Yet "suddenly, at the end of my second trimester, I was struck with debilitating diarrhea. Several times, I saw my obstetrician, telling him that I had not eliminated a formed stool in a month. He told me not to worry, that I looked well and the baby was growing normally."

The baby was stillborn. Several years and several miscarriages later, she carried a baby into its sixth month but again experienced severe diarrhea. She was put on bed rest, and at 33 weeks delivered a two-pound baby — alive and destined to survive, but small enough to fit into the palm of Bast's hand. Although celiac disease is known to cause fertility problems in both women and men, it is still seldom tagged as the culprit. Bast was diagnosed only after the birth of her premature baby, when a veterinarian friend suggested she get tested for food sensitivities. The gastroenterologist who finally provided Bast's diagnosis was the 23rd doctor she had consulted since her symptoms began.

"Because there's been no drug to treat gluten sensitivity or celiac disease, there's still not a lot of research into those fields, even though the prevalence of celiac disease has quadrupled since 1950," Bast says. She wonders whether this rise might spring from the increased quantities of processed foods in the standard American diet. As far as diagnosis and treatment are concerned, "the physicians are scrambling. Sure, there's a term: gluten sensitivity. But that term only describes how people feel," rather than the science behind it or its wide-ranging effects.

Even for those who suspect they have celiac disease, "it still just seems too hard to get tested," Bast says. "You have to ask the doctor to test you, and most doctors don't know which tests to run." Some celiac-disease sufferers experience no obvious symptoms, she adds, yet the damage is slowly and silently being done.

"These people think they don't have digestive issues, but they have neurological and psychological issues. They too should get tested." But when confronting a medical community that lacks a standard celiac-disease protocol and medications, "they have to advocate for themselves."

No one in my house has digestive or neurological issues. As for my psychological issues, I know for sure what caused them and it isn't anything that grows in fields. Having been a vegetarian for 20 years, a hypochondriac for 30, and a cheapskate for more, I decided to try making seitan at home. Having always been lazy as well, I picked the easy route, buying vital wheat gluten in bulk and mixing it in a bowl with water, ginger, pepper, garlic and soy sauce. Some recipes say to add paprika for color but I was afraid the result would taste like Chinese goulash. Five minutes of easy kneading yielded a dough log, which I sliced into cutlet shapes. Slipped into barely-boiling broth, the slices simmered for an hour. Watching them bounce and bonk against each other heartily, nearly doubling in size as they absorbed liquid, solidifying as they cooked, I marveled through the steam. After that hour, they bathed in the broth, in the fridge, all night.

And lo. Now they were firmer still, looking for all the world like little steaks. I poked them stoutly, yet my finger did not penetrate. I dropped one from a height onto a cutting board. It did not break. It bounced. Bite me, it said. I did. Savory juices rushed into my mouth. (Next time I might add that paprika after all, or cumin or allspice or liquid smoke.) Bitten, the newborn seitan put up a bit of a fight: ever so slightly fluffy, yet requiring the use of molars. Yes. Within the week it would be curried "lamb"; it would be sweet-and-sour "pork"; on Kaiser rolls it would be "hamburgers." It cost only about a buck. I can keep doing this. My life was transformed overnight. It's like having unearthed the esoteric secret of the universe, a treasure that will vanquish hunger, an alchemy for all but the gluten-sensitive: the code.

Just add water.


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