Tuesday, April 27, 2010


Greater Boston has a couple new vegetarian restaurants. The Pulse Cafe in Somerville has classic vegetarian fare from fresh ingredients, food of the sort that those of middle-age might remember making from what they bought at the food coop or Erewhon on Newbury Street. The Red Lentil in Watertown has a similar base, but a bolder and more global spice profile. A favorable review by Robert Nadeau, Boston's veteran restaurant critic, proposes the Gobi Manchurian as their signature appetizer. I'm not sure I agree. The cauliflower was indeed cooked just right, but I think the Indo-Chinese spices need to be more like at Indian Dhaba or Mysore Veggie (one of two South Indian restaurants next to an ISSO Swaminarayan mandir in Lowell — the one in the picture here, though I believe the text on that page refers to this one) on its Thursday Indo-Chinese night (even if the color does sometimes reach outside nature). For my favorite of Red Lentil's appetizers, I would choose the Sesame Encrusted Seitan Strips with miso horseradish dressing. Of another seitan dish, that Phoenix review mistakes its source, “Seitan with teff crêpes ($14.50) takes the meatiest-textured soy product and wraps it in a series of earthy teff injeras, which are somehow stiffened to near-taco crunchability.”

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Seitan is wheat gluten. (Update: The 4/30 print column included several readers' corrections and the online review linked to above now says “wheat gluten product.”) Broadly, it refers to chunks of gluten prepared in various ways. Specifically, to those that have been simmered in soy sauce.

The word was coined by George Ohsawa, who brought the macrobiotic diet to America, and either invented seitan or worked closely with Kiyoshi Mokutani, president of Marushima Shoyu, who did, to bring it to market in the late 1960s. The tan is the first part of 蛋白 tanpaku 'protein'. The sei might be a suffix as in 植物製 'plant-made' or 植物性 'plant-like' shokubutsu-sei, although as the OED points out it is unusual for Japanese words to be invented that way. So it is also claimed to be from sei 'to be; become' (成?), with a resultant sense of 'right protein substitute' (see record 557 in William Shurtleff's Soyinfo Center here). In Japanese, the word is still used only in the macrobiotic context, and written as セイタン.

The earliest quotation in the OED is from The Art of Just Cooking (1974) by George's wife Lima, in a recipe (p. 85) for making seitan by simmering wheat gluten in shoyu seasoned with ginger for a few hours. The chapter in which it appears is titled, “Kofu: Wheat Gluten.” 烤麩 kōfu (kaofu) is Shanghai-style wheat gluten. 麩 fu alone is the normal Japanese word for wheat gluten, the two main types being 生麩 nama-fu, raw gluten used in Buddhist temple cuisine (精進料理 shōjin ryōri: mentioned before in the Iron Chef post; or see Kajitsu, a Michelin-starred restaurant in New York) and  焼き麩 yaki-fu, grilled or dried gluten used in soups or simmered dishes or on salads.

ame can refer to a traditional Japanese candy made from wheat-gluten, inflated like a balloon and formed into animal shapes (see here and here; illustrated here and here). Issa wrote a haiku:


ume sake ya ame no uguisu kuchi wo aku

plum blossoms--
the candy nightingale
opens his mouth

(I don't know a lot more about the tradition, but I wonder whether the 笛 fue 'flute; pipe' in some of his other candy poems might refer to the reed used to blow-up the gluten, rather than a musical instrument meant to attract customers.)

In Chinese, prepared wheat gluten is 麵筋 mian4jin1 (Cantonese min6gan1; simplified 面筋; literally 'noodle tendon'), used, along with bean curd and bean curd skin, to make Buddhist vegetarian mock meats of various textures. The earliest surviving occurrence of the word is in the Dream Pool Essays:

凡鐵之有鋼者,如麵中有筋,濯盡柔麵,則麵筋乃見。(chap. 3, item 56)

fan2 tie3 zhi1 you3 gang1zhe3, ru2 mian4 zhong1 you3 jin1, zhuo2 jin4 rou2 mian4, ze2 mian4jin1 nai3 jian4.

Steel is to iron as mien chin (gluten) is to mien (flour). It is only after thoroughly washing the dough that gluten is revealed. (tr. Needham)

fu1 (simplified 麸; 麥 mai4 'wheat' with a phonetic 夫 fu1) originally meant 'bran', as it still does, but for a time was also 'gluten', hence as in Japanese. The Song Dynasty Taoist 白玉蟾 Bai2 Yu4 Chan2 (born 葛長庚 Ge3 Chang2 Geng1; see further bio and photo album here) wrote the following poem (quoted, for example, on this page on the history of Chinese wheat gluten):


nen4fu3 sui1 yun2 mei3, fu1jin1 zui4 qing1 chun2.

Although soft bean curd is said to be beautiful, wheat gluten is the cleanest and purest.

As far as I know, Boston no longer has a restaurant serving this sort of Chinese Buddhist cuisine (the closest is the Vietnamese version at Grasshopper). But New York has several, including the wonderfully-named House of Vegetarian.

Update: The warm weather specials menu at JǒJǒ TaiPei (久久台北) in Allston Village has a number of cold dishes, including Braised (“Red-Cooked”) Wheat Gluten 紅燒烤麩 hong2shao1 kao3fu1, which it translates as “Roasted Bean Curd Pie,” a translation made even more interesting by its apparent uniqueness on the Web — up until now.

Slightly earlier than Lima Ohsawa's book was The Health Food Dictionary with Recipes (1973), with the rather confusing entry (p. 153):

Seitan is made from the pulp left over from the preparation of tamari soy sauce. It is dried in jerkylike strips that are high in protein and particularly good in soups.

Which certainly sounds as though it's made from soy beans, even if we allow that this was a time when tamari meant soy sauce with wheat in English (due again to Ohsawa; etymologically 溜まり 'collected things', but just written phonetically たまり), what is now more often called shoyu (due to Shurtleff's efforts; 醤油). I admit that I do not actually know what happens to the residue after the moromi (醪) has finished fermenting and the soy sauce (and soy oil) have been filtered out, but it does not become wheat. It is true that early seitan was much more like jerky, and much saltier. (See Soyinfo Center record 11 here.)

The earliest reference to seitan that I have also puts it in with soy. Cooking Good Food (circa 1969) says (p. 6):

Seitan or “Protein X” is made from the same ingredients as the above condiments. A slightly different process produces a strong jerky which, when boiled or sauteed, resembles beef in appearance and taste. It is very good in soups.

“The above” being tamari, miso, and morromi [sic], together with tofu the products of the soybean, which “has been called the ‘Vegetable Cow’ of the Orient.” The booklet does not list an author. It is published by Order of the Universe Publications, which put out a newsletter of the same name promoting the teachings of Michio Kushi (issue one scan available here). Their address, Box 203, Prudential Center Station, Boston, was just a couple blocks from Erewhon: see here for a summary of Erewhon's history. The Soyinfo center record (1470 here) says that the author was its editor, Jim Ledbetter, and confirms it as the earliest occurrence of the word in their (extensive) records. The book is also notable for being listed in the appendix, “Other Books Worth Stealing,” to Steal This Book, with the annotation, “Eastern recipes and ways of preparing different foods.” Right after it is another from the same publisher, Cooking with Grains and Vegetables Plus, “Mystical, health food freaks will dig this book.” The plus being the revised Boston edition of the Los Angeles edition, which Erewhon distributed.

In the West, credit for the discovery, or at least scientific isolation, of wheat gluten usually goes to Iacopo Bartolomeo Beccari. The secretary of the Institute of Science of Bologna reported his washing away the starch to leave the gluten (done around 1728, written up in 1745):

Res eſt parvi laboris. Farina ſumitur ex optimo tritico, modice trita, ne cribrum furfures ſubeant; oportet enim ab his eſſe quam expurgatiſſimam, ut omnis miſturæ tollatur ſuſpicio. Tum aquæ puriſſimæ permiſcetur, ac ſubigitur. Quod reliquum eſt operis, lotura abſolvit. Aqua enim partes omnes, quaſcumque poteſt ſolvere, ſecum avehit; alias intactas relinquit.

Porro hæ, quas aqua relinquit, contrectatæ manibus, preſſæque ſub aqua relique, paullatim in maſſam coguntur mollem, & ſupra, quam credi poteſt, tenacem: egregium glutinis genus, & ad opificia multa aptiſſimum; in quo illud notatu dignum eſt, quod aquæ permiſceri ſe amplius non ſinit. Illæ aliæ, quas aqua ſecum avehit, aliquandiu innatant, & aquam lacteam reddunt; poſt paullatim deferuntur ad fundum, & ſubſidunt; nec admodum inter ſe cohærent; ſed quaſi pulvis vel leviſſimo concuſſu ſurſum redeunt. Nihil his affinius eſt amylo; vel potius ipſæ veriſſimum ſunt amylum. Atque hæc ſcilicet duo ſunt illa partium genera, quæ ſibi Beccarius propoſuit ad chymicum opus faciendum, quæque ut ſuis nominibus diſtingueret, glutinoſum alterum appellare ſolebat, alterum amylaceum. (De Bononiensi Scientiarum et Artium Instituto atque Academia Commentarii, II, i, p. 123.)

It is a thing of little labor. Flour is taken of the best wheat, moderately ground, the bran not passing through the sieve, for it is necessary that this be fully purged away, so that all traces of a mixture have been removed. Then it is mixed with pure water and kneaded. What is left by this procedure, washing clarifies. Water carried off with itself all it is able to dissolve, the rest remains untouched.

After this, what the water leaves is worked in the hands, and pressed upon in the water that has stayed. Slowly it is drawn together in a doughy mass, and beyond what is possible to be believed, tenacious, a remarkable sort of glue, and suited to many uses; and what is especially worthy of note, it cannot any longer be mixed with water. The other particles, which water carries away with itself, for some time float and render the water milky; but after a while they are carried to the bottom and sink; nor in any way do they adhere to each other; but like powder they return upward on the lightest contact. Nothing is more like this than starch, or rather this truly is starch. And these are manifestly the two sorts of bodies which Beccari displayed through having done the work of a chemist and he distinguished them by their names, one being appropriately called glutinous and the other amylaceous. (tr. Beach)

There were earlier partial efforts, of course. Leeuwenhoek's microscopes were sufficient to distinguish gluten from starch in wheat flour. But he did not fully understand what he saw, just as he did not recognize yeast in beer for what it was. In both cases, everything was just more globuli farinarii. (See, for instance, Raspail here and here.) Francesco Grimaldi, in his De Lumine (1665), described (p. 47; I cannot figure out how to deep link to that site), “glutino … ex farina” 'glue from wheat' from which “remanet ipſum glutinum exſiccatum, durum, ac inflexibile:” 'the dry glue itself remains, hard and inflexible'. In the provocatively titled “Jacopo Bartolomeo Beccari n'a pas découvert le gluten,” Roberto Savelli not only assigns priority to Grimaldi, but supposes, “La découverte du gluten et de sa préparation est presque certainement une découverte faite par hasard en cuisine, par quelque bonne grosse ménagère bolonaise, et divulguée comme un objet de curiosité.” 'The discovery of gluten and its preparation is almost certainly a discovery made by accident in the kitchen, by some nice fat Bolognese housewife, and disclosed as an object of curiosity.'

Gluten is composed of a pair of proteins: gliadin, which is somewhat soluble in alcohol, and glutenin, which is not. Long polymer chains of glutenin, unkinked by kneading, are made viscous and extensible by the smaller gliadin. The beginning of working this out was by Heinrich Einhof, who called (“Chemische Analyse des Roggens,” 1805) the soluble part Kleber 'glue' and the remainder Pfanzenschleim 'plant-mucus'. Gioacchino Taddei called them (“Ricerche sul glutine di frumento,” 1819, also earlier in the same volume) gloiodina and zimoma, that is, gliadin and zymome (< γλοιώδης 'glutinous' / γλία 'glue' and ζύμωμα 'fermented mixture'). Berzelius, who coined protein to describe the common nourishing substance of plants and animals, called the soluble part mucin. Hilaire Rouelle made the idea even more explicit (“Observation sur les Fécules”), calling gluten, “matiere glutineuse ou végéto-animale” 'glutinous or vegeto-animal substance'. In addition to wheat, and what makes it rise (wheat gluten being just plastic enough to contain the carbon dioxide and just elastic enough to stretch with it), these researchers were as much concerned with fermentation in general. Rouelle and Giovanni Fabbroni proposed that alcohol was actually produced by distillation.

For more of this, Google Books is full of late Victorian studies (superseded for their chemistry, but more complete on history), such as “The Proteids of Wheat”, “The Chemistry of Wheat Gluten” or The Vegetable Proteins. One last name will link back from the history of biochemistry to the main topics of this blog. Gliadin was called glutin by Nicolas de Saussure (“De la formation du sucre dans la germination du froment”), the grandfather of Ferdinand de Saussure.

By the end of the 19th century, wheat gluten was being produced commercially (sometimes as a bi-product of wheat starch production, as described here). It was sold as food suitable for diabetics and more generally the aged and infirm. And under names like Dr. Johnson's Glutine or, from New York's Health Food Company, White Wheat Gluten. And as a general cure-all. In London, there was Mr. Bullock's Semola. Here in Boston, one could buy Pure Vegetable Gluten from the well-established apothecary Theodore Metcalf Co. (profile; obituary; some merchandise) at 39 Tremont St. (exterior; interior; this was the next block up from the Boston Museum and the original location of the Mass. Historical Society, who have preserved a copy of his catalog).

It was also sold as a meat substitute for the growing number of vegetarians, and in particular Adventists. John Harvey Kellogg (see the breakfast cereal post) sold gluten meal (somewhat like what is called “vital wheat gluten” today) and held a patent for a preparation of wheat gluten and peanuts, which he sold as Protose.

And these continued to be made right through the appearance of macrobiotics and seitan. For example, The Fine Art of Cooking, an Adventist cookbook from 1941, has a recipe calling for canned Gluten Steak to be simmered in Sovex (soy sauce and brewers yeast: see the glossary post).

The book Cooking with Seitan (1987), by Barbara and Leonard Jacobs, and an article with the same title  in 1985 in the East-West Journal, which the Jacobs published, says the following, which has then been repeated by later sources:

Seitan is a food with a relatively long history. Although not widely known in the West, it was traditionally eaten in China, Korea, Russia, the Middle East, and probably many other countries that grew wheat.

(It appears on the back cover of the later edition in Google Books.) This makes sense, like Prof. Savelli's Bolognese housewife. But I do not myself know of any traditional Russian or Middle-Eastern wheat gluten dishes. Perhaps some reader does: please leave a comment if so.

Interestingly, the last time we were at Red Lentil, flyers had appeared on all the tables in support of the Chef  to Plate gluten intolerance awareness campaign, since they have plenty of gluten-free offerings. Conversely, for vegetarians with soy allergies, wheat gluten is often proposed as an alternative protein source. Unfortunately, this mostly only works if one makes it oneself, since seitan and other prepared forms use soy. The can of mock abalone we have was apparently made by simmering in soy sauce, then frying in soybean oil, then seasoning with more soy sauce.