Health and wellness

The vegan fried chicken made of wheat gluten, a meat substitute in China for 1,500 years and packed with protein

Diners queue outside the Temple of Seitan, a London takeaway restaurant, for crispy wings, burgers and nuggets that look and feel like there’s chicken inside. They’re made of something called seitan – so what’s this wheat meat all about?

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 August, 2018, 2:17pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 August, 2018, 5:58pm

It’s 5pm on a Friday and the queue at Temple of Seitan is beginning to stretch out of the door. Situated in London’s Camden borough, the small takeaway restaurant sells fried food of an unusual kind – it’s all vegan.

Diners tuck into crispy, battered “chicken” wings, burgers and nuggets cooked to mirror the sensation of eating real meat. The secret to Temple’s deceptively fibrous analogue is seitan, or wheat gluten. Marketed as a new trend in plant-based eating, it dates back as far as 1,500 years to China. For reluctant vegetarians who miss the taste and experience of eating meat, gluten is a game-changer: under the name “textured wheat protein”, it’s the main ingredient after water in the Impossible Burger, made by Silicon Valley start-up Impossible Foods.

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But what is it? Making seitan from scratch involves “rinsing” flour of its starch to leave just the gluten proteins as a stodgy, elastic ball, which can be marinated and then fried or baked. In traditional Chinese cuisine, gluten, or mianjin, is used as a common substitute for meat, especially pork, soaking up different flavours and sauces like a sponge. When home-made, wheat gluten is high in protein and low in carbohydrates, but tastes of very little on its own, which is why shop-bought seitan products are often high in salt, fat and other flavour enhancers.

“A three-ounce (85g) serving usually contains between 15 and 21 grams of protein, which is roughly equivalent to the amounts in chicken or beef,” says Hong Kong nutritionist Wynnie Chan, who advises caution when purchasing pre-packaged, flavoured seitan. “You’ll often see it sold in supermarkets in horrible shades of red and orange and coated with loads of sauce. If they’re pre-packaged or canned, they will be usually have been deep fried first, so will be high in fat, calories and sodium.”

But that is precisely the reason seitan has gone down a storm in London, a city of fried chicken shops, where biting through crispy buttermilk batter and licking meat juice from greasy fingers is the quintessential finale to many boozy evenings out on the town, or the fuel after a late-night worker’s shift.

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The new chain’s Temple Burger, for example, which pairs a “fillet” of fried seitan with lettuce, pickles and “bacon”, oozing with ranch mayonnaise and cheese (all vegan), looks, tastes and smells exactly the opposite of a salad. It’s the antithesis of the clean eating, whole food movement – indulgent and gluttonous, without any of the slaughter and questionable animal rights that go into your average boneless box: veganism for a generation that abhors the degradation of the earth’s resources, but does not want to feel like they’re missing out on popcorn chicken.

Large fast food chains are taking note of consumer demand for healthier, more sustainable alternatives to meat. McDonald's launched its soy-based McVegan burger in Sweden and Finland this year while KFC, which already sells a vegan-friendly burger (also made with soy) in Canada, has announced it will launch a meat-free fried “chicken” option in 2019 in the UK – and could well end up using seitan.

The name seitan, derived from the Japanese words for "made of" and "protein", was first used in the early 1960s by Japanese dietician, teacher and author George Ohsawa, a proponent of the macrobiotic diet, which encourages the consumption of locally grown, seasonal foods with less fewer animal products. Seitan was soon manufactured and sold in Japan, before it entered the US market later that decade.

There are conflicting accounts as to when wheat gluten was extracted for the first time, but the evidence points to religious origins. “Probably the most common origin story for seitan is that it was invented by Buddhist monks who were desperate to find a vegetarian alternative that could imitate the texture of meat,” says Eliot Gee, a food anthropologist from SOAS, University of London. “There are references to seitan in Chinese texts as far back as the sixth century, giving chefs plenty of time to devise uses for the product that go beyond simply imitating meat dishes.”

Wheat gluten, writes Professor John Kieschnick in his book Of Tripod and Palate: Food, Politics and Religion in Traditional China, became favoured by high society vegetarians in 18th century China as a strategy to “circumvent awkward encounters with nonvegetarian friends … it was common for considerate hosts to prepare special dishes for their vegetarian guests who could then dine with carnivores.”

There are references to seitan in Chinese texts as far back as the sixth century, giving chefs plenty of time to devise uses for the product that go beyond simply imitating meat dishes
Eliot Gee, a food anthropologist from SOAS, University of London

Despite its history, wheat gluten hasn’t enjoyed the same trendy regeneration in Asia. While older generations and devout Buddhists enjoy it, it hasn’t quite shaken its staid reputation. Restaurants that sell dishes made with gluten in Hong Kong and China usually pair it with traditional, gloopy sauces, such as sweet and sour, or serve it braised with vegetables. The Taiwanese vegan food manufacturer Companion Foods, established in 1959, sells a range of canned products that incorporate gluten, including Peking “duck”, curried “chicken” fillets, hot and sour soup, kung pao sauce, and vegetarian sausage.

American food entrepreneur Lindsey Fine runs her business, Serenity Seitan, in Shanghai – where she finds it easier to sell its products to foreigners.

A vegetarian since the age of 21, Fine had a tough time sourcing high quality meat-free food when she initially moved to China to teach. In particular, she had a hankering for the kind of gluten she had eaten back in the US, where a meat-free lifestyle was gaining popularity.

“In China, usually the only places you find seitan are in mainstream local eateries as a spongy cold dish usually served with wood ear mushrooms, shredded carrots and coriander. Otherwise Buddhist restaurants are the only places I have found it used … I couldn’t find the dense seitan I was used to at home,” she says. So she started to make her own. She pored over recipes in cookbooks and online, experimenting with baked, simmered and steamed techniques until she found a version she liked.

Her first product was a simple seitan cutlet that she began selling in April 2013 at a Shanghai farmer’s market, where it quickly sold out – largely to foreigners.

“I couldn’t bear to watch the locals’ reactions, especially the older generation. They really didn’t understand what it was or how to use it, and would make a face and say, ‘Bu xi huan’ (‘I don’t like it’). I would be mortified,” she says. Now, perceptions are slowly changing.

“The younger generation, as well as those that have experienced life abroad, are really keen about living a healthier life and doing things that are good for the planet.”

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Switching to a vegan diet is the single most responsible action people can take to lessen their impact on the environment, a comprehensive new study taking into account all levels of the food production chain has concluded.

“If the growth of the global meat and dairy industry continues as projected, the livestock sector as a whole could consume 80 per cent of the planet’s annual greenhouse gas budget by 2050,” concluded the report by non-profit farming organisation Grain and the US government’s Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

“In 2018 we stand poised at a fascinating moment for alternative proteins,” says Gee. “Over the last two decades, products such as seitan, tempeh, and tofu have become far more common sights in commercial grocery stores, and much of the stigma about these mock meats has dissipated as they have become acceptable foods themselves, rather than simply dietary substitutes. At the same time … the majority of the religious or culturally specific associations have been removed.”

Extracting protein from the wheat germ to create a product that fills the space usually occupied by meat is nothing new, but, as an alternative to slaughtered animals and a polluting meat production chain, seitan has the spotlight.

Why you shouldn’t mock wheat meat

Wheat gluten’s nutritional profile is shrouded in misconceptions. On hearing the word “gluten”, many people seem to think seitan is nothing more than a dollop of pasta or bread dough coming to wreak havoc on blood sugar and waistlines.

There is a large gluten-free movement dedicated to the demonisation of wheat for a myriad of scientifically dubious reasons. In fact, seitan is low in carbohydrates and very high in protein – and only really to be avoided by the truly gluten-intolerant, thought to make up less than five per cent of the population in the US, or those with coeliac disease, which has a prevalence of between 0.5 per cent and one per cent in the West.

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In East Asia, gluten intolerant conditions are thought to be much rarer, though researchers admit that large-scale studies are lacking in the region. A study of Zheijiang Province carried out at Zhejiang University in 2009 noted that rice was a more popular food than wheat, which made symptoms of the disease difficult to spot.

While conflicting accounts exist on whether seitan is a “complete protein”, containing all nine essential amino acids, pairing it with a mixture of lysine-rich foods, such as beans, vegetables or tofu, ensures a balanced meal, nutritionist Chan advises.