Seitan is a pseudo-Japanese word for the textured wheat gluten used as a meat substitute in many Asian countries and for those on a macrobiotic diet. George Ohsawa, a Japanese philosopher and developer of the macrobiotic diet, coined the term sometime, it is thought, in the early 1960s, but this is not certain. He referred to a substitute for meat popular among vegetarian Buddhists, especially, although it has become part of the cuisine of many countries.
Seitan is made by taking wheat flour in water and washing the starch out of it. Home cooks can do this, and directions are available from The Farm Cookbook, produced by The Farm, a vegetarian commune in Summertown, Tenn. The Farm cookbook calls seitan simply, “gluten,” since this is what is left of the flour when all the starch is gone.
Seitan is a chewy, dense, stringy substance that mimics many of the desirable characteristics of meat, including the all-important “mouth feel.” When it is rinsed and ready to cook, it is spiced and oiled, and then may be twisted into chunks or smaller pieces and cooked, usually with a sauce. Seitan tends to turn grayish when cooked, so a colorful sauce is necessary for an appetizing plate. Barbecue and teriyaki sauce is popular in the West, while curry sauces are prevalent in Asia.
The tofurkey has become popular in recent years, and this twist on Thanksgiving is nothing more than a large portion of seasoned, oiled seitan. Many vegetarians prefer seitan as a meat substitute because it feels and chews more like actual meat.
Like tofu, seitan tends to be somewhat bland by itself, so proper seasoning is essential. Some cooks marinade seitan before cooking, which also helps it retain more flavor. It also tends to take on the flavors of whatever is in the cooking pan with it.
Seitan is available plain — sometimes labeled as "wheat meat" — or prepared in cans, from most Asian grocery stores. Or, the adventurous cook can attempt making seitan at home and cooking it in a favorite recipe.