The rising number of people opting for a meat- and dairy-free diet has inevitably led to the growing number of meat-free substitutes entering the market, as food producers rapidly try and catch up with demand. Seitan (pronounced say-tan) is one such ingredient, providing vegans with the protein, texture and bulk of meat without any actual animal content.
While it has been around for centuries in East and Southeast Asia, seitan has arguably been overshadowed in Western cooking by tofu and tempeh, but its star is rising here in the UK, partly due to the fact it lends itself well to fast-food favourites like burgers and fried-chicken-style dishes.
Derived from wheat gluten, seitan is made by washing wheat-flour dough until all the starch granules have been removed, leaving a pliable elastic mass which can be kept as it is or flavoured before cooking. It is more robust than tofu or tempeh, and therefore less likely to fall apart when fried, yet absorbs flavours well. New food company Love Seitan launched its ready-made version this year and already offers five different flavours, including Italian Herb and Curry & Coriander.
In Hackney, seitan is the star at vegan fried chicken shop Temple of Seitan, which has built up an army of worshippers since it launched last year. Restaurant group MEATliquor serves a seitan version of its battered chicken Monkey Fingers (called Satan's Fingers) at its Brighton site, and seitan replaces the usual chicken or vegetables in Wagamama's new Vegatsu curry, currently being trialled at selected restaurants.
Franco Casolin, head chef of Wulf & Lamb: “The Wulf Burger is our most popular burger, the patty is made with a seitan base which gives it its signature meaty flavours. We serve it with soft fluffy brioche buns spread with our house-made cashew aioli, fresh tomato, lettuce, sweet onion and gherkins, and our chunky rosemary and thyme potato wedges on the side. The seitan is marinated overnight with lots of different secret ingredients to make it our delicious signature dish. We pan-fry the patty before finishing it in the oven for the ultimate texture. Seitan has a brilliant texture and works with our mix of spices to create a really tasty, smoky and ‘meaty’ burger. The texture also works really well with our smooth cashew cream and that added crunch of our fresh lettuce, tomato and onion. All of these components, coupled with our sauerkraut and the brioche bun make for an indulgent feast.”
Hilary Masin, director and co-founder of Sgaia Foods: “One of my favourite dishes before I went vegan was pasta alla carbonara, which is traditionally made using smoked pancetta. I still love it, but now I make a completely vegan version using seitan instead of pancetta. Seitan is a great alternative to any kind of meat in dishes, and for this dish I would pre-season the seitan with liquid smoke to get the smokiness into it, cube it into small chunks and quickly pan-fry it just before adding it to the pasta. Seitan can get tough and chewy if overcooked, so it’s always a good idea to add it in as the last ingredient. The seitan adds a great bite, satisfying chewiness and a delicious smoky finish that goes exceptionally well with a creamy tofu-based alternative to the traditionally egg-based sauce. And it combines well with spaghetti so that when you swirl your fork around you pick up a bit of everything.”
Steve Swindon, co-founder of Love Seitan: “Slices of seitan make an excellent meat-free alternative to pepperoni or other deli meat as a pizza topping together with vegan cheese and vegetables such as mushrooms and tomatoes. All of our Love Seitan flavours would work, but Chilli & Garlic and Smokey Dokey work particularly well. We slice or cube it and sprinkle it onto a pizza base covered in a tomato-based sauce with mushrooms, peppers, onions and vegan cheese, before cooking in the oven at 180 degrees Celsisus for about 10 minutes, or until the cheese has melted and the seitan has started to crisp up.”