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by Dan Moore, Deli Manager
Last September I got a visit from a chef out of the Washington area named David Lee. He was in the area doing some food shows and hawking his latest creation, vegan grain meat he created using seitan. This isn’t overly unusual around the deli; we often get folks coming in to get us to try their products. Usually nothing comes of it, since we like to make the food we sell ourselves. Once in a great while, however, we find something special (like Caspian Café dolmas and sandwiches). This visit was one of those occasions.
I’m not much of a seitan fan (I’m not even sure of the correct pronunciation—more on that later). I find that it often isn’t marinated long enough to absorb any flavor, and it has a weird texture. There are occasional dishes I like, of course, but for the most part I avoid it when choosing a meal. After tasting Chef Lee’s items I became a convert. So without further ado, here’s his story, and the story of Field Roast.
To get a full picture of where he began, you have to go back in time a bit. Okay, a lot—to roughly 7th century China. Vegetarian Buddhist monks were searching for ways to make a vegetarian meat that could stand up to cooking, hold flavor, and have a substantial texture. They started by combining wheat flour and water in a bowl and kneading it. They noticed that after a while the starch started to dissipate. The more they kneaded, the more starch came out into the water. After quite a bit of kneading, the dough had lost enough starch to become very chewy. They simmered this in broth for a few hours and found they had a substance that could be stir-fried or grilled and was almost 70% protein to boot. This substance became known in China as “Mien Ching,” or “Buddha’s Food.”
At some point Buddha’s Food crossed the sea to Japan. Japanese cooks took the wheat meat and added their own touch to it. They simmered the gluten in shoyu (soy sauce) and added ginger and seaweed to it. They called this, cleverly enough, seitan—literally “wheat simmered in shoyu.” The broth added both flavor and texture to the wheat and became a staple food.
Seitan in the U.S.
Immigration to the U.S. brought seitan to our shores in the 18th and 19th centuries. For the most part it remained an exotic ingredient, relegated mainly to Chinese and Japanese areas in the U.S. cities. Then in the 1970s there was a bit of a cultural shift towards vegetarianism. Japanese cuisine was one of the large influences in this movement. People began trying new cuisines and food types and thus seitan became popular among vegetarians and in natural food stores.
Enter David Lee. He was trying to make a vegetarian teriyaki wrap for his restaurant, but couldn’t find a protein food that would have a firm resistance to the tooth, char well, and take on the flavor of the flame. He began looking into meat alternatives and came upon both Mien Ching and seitan. They met his criteria, but they were rubbery and, frankly, tasted pretty blah. Chef Lee began experimenting, though, and mostly by accident stumbled upon the formula for his Field Roast products. Instead of focusing on Asian cuisine in the preparation of the gluten, he began by adding European flavors. Wine, garlic, mustard and herbs, and even fresh vegetables and legumes made their way into his process. The result was a texture that was fuller, more flavorful, and less rubbery than the traditional wheat meats.
He created a number of products using this new relative of seitan, and I’m pleased to say that the Co-op carries just about all of them. These include a traditional meatloaf style, the Celebration Roast (which is stuffed with a sausage-like filling of butternut squash, apples, and wild mushrooms,) and two types of vegan burgers that are among my new personal favorites. The first is a hazelnut herb cutlet that is amazing even by itself. The second is even better. It’s a coconut-breaded patty that I usually heat up with some of the deli’s mango salsa as a topping, and just like that, it’s out of this world. These products are all fully cooked, so all you do is heat and eat. It’s actually better if you don’t cook it very long and if you use high heat—for all his work it’s still seitan and has a tendency to suck up moisture when heated for extended periods. After meeting Chef Lee and trying his products, I have to admit it: I am now a fan of seitan.
And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for. The proper pronunciation for seitan is...well no one else seems to know either. I researched this for a grueling half-hour and came up with the following pronunciation guides: “say-tan,” “shi-tan,” “say-than,” “sih-than,” “see-tan,” you get the picture. Oh well, let the mystery be, and thanks for stopping by, Chef Lee. (Also thank you to Field Roast’s web site, which gave the story above!)