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One of the best parts of becoming vegan was that it encouraged me to try new things. I didn’t grow up with a particularly adventurous palate, which I suppose has something to do with the fact that my mother didn’t, either. We ate a fairly steady array of simple pasta dishes, baked chicken breasts, the occasional casserole. Spices were few and far between, alliums scant, and more global dishes a rare bird.
When I became vegan, I was tasked not only with learning how to cook, but also with tasting a number of ingredients that were foreign to me, from tamari and nutritional yeast to rutabaga, celeriac, chayote, and jicama.
Nowadays there’s practically nothing I won’t eat, so long as it’s vegan. Even radishes, once my vegetable nemesis, have become a springtime regular for me (learning how to roast them helped). So why do I still feel so shy about seitan, the vital wheat gluten product that is such a popular component of vegan meals?
I think it’s a texture thing. Unlike tofu and tempeh, which are also prominent vegan proteins, seitan really does have a texture that is similar to poultry or meat. There’s no confusing the crumbly, hearty texture of tempeh with anything else, and in spite of its chameleon-like properties, tofu has a fairly unmistakable texture, too. Seitan has a chewiness and mouthfeel that, to me, gives real-life meaning to the phrase “tastes like chicken.” I believe firmly in the value and usefulness of meat replacements, and yet I miss meat rarely, so the authenticity of seitan is a little lost on me.
(I also assumed for a long time that seitan had to be made from scratch, and as someone who’s a little allergic to the idea of kneading, I wasn’t eager to try. As it turns out, there are countless excellent seitan brands to choose from, both local and national, so using seitan in a recipe is really as easy as deciding what brand and flavor you like.)
But learning the history behind seitan has made me all the more appreciative of its role in vegan cooking. Seitan is often called “wheat meat,” but you might also hear it described as “monk's meat.” The story of its origins, quite possibly apocryphal, is that vital wheat gluten was discovered by vegetarian Buddhist monks in seventh-century China. Whether this is true or not, seitan remains a common food in macrobiotic and Buddhist cuisines.
Because it’s so reminiscent of meat, seitan is incredibly versatile: It can be ground and used in “meaty” sauces or chili, diced and thrown into stir fries, or left in larger pieces and used for everything from grilling to cacciatore. As a relative newcomer to seitan, I tend to focus on simple preparations: a good marinade, followed by grilling, baking, or pan cooking.
The following recipe is my new favorite, a summery ginger-soy-lime treatment that results in tender, flavorful, slightly citrusy seitan pieces. It’s perfect for sharing at cookouts, potlucks, or as an accompaniment to a grill meal. I particularly like to pile the skewers over couscous or quinoa, then serve them with grilled vegetables or salad.
- 1/4 cup soy sauce or tamari
- 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon grated or minced fresh ginger
- 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 8 ounces seitan, pre-cubed or cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
Are you a seitan lover, or a skeptic? If you're in the former camp, share your favorite way to cook it in the comments.