Seitan

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From time to time during the past half century or so, I've heard of a food product called seitan.  Because the name sounds Japanese and it was associated with a natural food store in Cambridge, Massachusetts that I frequented called Erewhon (see here for the 1872 satirical Utopian novel by Samuel Butler whence it got its name) that was founded by Japanese macrobiotic advocates (see below for a bit more detail), I always assumed that it was both a Japanese word and a Japanese product.  As we shall find later in this post, I was (sort of) mistaken on both counts.

Why am I writing about seitan now?  Well, in the past, I've only rarely eaten small amounts of seitan.  Two days ago, though, I ate an entire dish with lots of chunks of seitan (masquerading as chicken or something).  That evening and for the next day, I experienced the most exuberant explosion of flatulence that I've ever had in my life.  Much more effective than beans.  Loud and foul.

So I decided, once and for all, to determine:  what is this stuff?

I started asking around.  Here's the first response I received:

Seitan gives me gas too. I think it is unnatural and wrong.

Hmmm.  That was certainly a straightforward rejoinder!  It prompted me to look up the rudiments of seitan on the web, after which I replied:

People think it's virtuous because it's vegetarian, BUT you're right to say it's unnatural.  You know how they make it?  Simply wash wash wash away all the starch from wheat until all that's left is blobs of gluten!!!  Gluten is what so many people need to avoid for various reasons.

Martindale's* is famous for its non-glutinous food.  Customers come from near and far to purchase gluten free food there.

[*Near my home and founded in 1860, Martindale's is known as the first health food store in the United States.]

So some folks avoid gluten like the plague and others consume pure gluten (seitan).

As I said above, I've always assumed that "seitan"  was a Japanese word.  It sounds very Japanese to me.  Turns out that George Ohsawa (October 18, 1893 – April 23, 1966), born Yukikazu Sakurazawa 桜沢 如一, who was the founder of the Macrobiotic diet and philosophy, invented that name.  I wonder on what basis he did so.

From Molly Des Jardin:

This is really interesting. Thanks for sending it! As a vegan who has lived several years in Japan I never thought it was a Japanese word, if only because the product is simply not available there at all (and the same goes for other vegan "protein" products like the Indonesian tempeh, TVP, etc., aside from tofu and natto of course). I was surprised to learn that the word was coined by this George Ohsawa. I have never encountered so much macrobiotic fervor as in Japan, so it does make sense if that's its origin. Now you've got me wondering how macrobiotic seitan is.

I'm curious to know how George Ohsawa invented "seitan", what he was thinking when he did so, and what meaning he was trying to convey.

Here's a capsule history of seitan from Wikipedia:

Wheat gluten has been documented in China since the 6th century. It was widely consumed by the Chinese as a substitute for meat, especially among adherents of Buddhism. The oldest reference to wheat gluten appears in the Qimin Yaoshu*, a Chinese agricultural encyclopedia written by Jia Sixie in 535. The encyclopedia mentions noodles prepared from wheat gluten called bo duo**. Wheat gluten was known as mian jin by the Song dynasty (960–1279). Wheat gluten arrived in the West by the 18th century. De Frumento, an Italian treatise on wheat from 1745, describes the process of washing wheat flour dough in order to extract the gluten. John Imison wrote an English-language definition of wheat gluten in his Elements of Science and Art published in 1803. By the 1830s, Western doctors were recommending wheat gluten in diets for diabetics. In the United States, the Seventh-day Adventists promoted the consumption of wheat gluten beginning in the late 19th century. Sanitarium Foods, a company affiliated with John Harvey Kellogg's Battle Creek Sanitarium, advertised wheat gluten in 1882.

[*VHM:  This is one of my favorite Chinese books.  It is a gold mine of Middle Vernacular Sinitic (MVS).]

[**VHM:  If anyone knows what these two characters are, please tell me.]

From the same source, here are some notes on the etymology of seitan:

The word seitan is of Japanese origin and was coined in 1961 by George Ohsawa, a Japanese advocate of the macrobiotic diet, to refer to a wheat gluten product created by Ohsawa's student Kiyoshi Mokutani. In 1962, wheat gluten was sold as seitan in Japan by Marushima Shoyu K.K. It was imported to the West in 1969 by the American company Erewhon.

Wheat gluten is also called seitan (UK: /ˈstæn/, US: /-tɑːn/;[6] Japanese: セイタン), mianjin (Chinese: 麵筋*), milgogi (Korean: 밀고기), wheat meat, gluten meat, or simply gluten.

[*VHM:  This literally means "wheat tendon".]

I find it fascinating that, to the extent that seitan is known in Japan, it is often referred to as wheat gluten meat (g urutenmīto グルテンミート).  Here's the Japanese Wikipedia article on that subject, with comments for specialists by Nathan Hopson.

——

Summary: Ohsawa apparently coined the term in English, which means that back home in Japan there are multiple kanji for it, but they aren't used much.

To start off, in Japanese wheat gluten is 麩 (fu), as in お麩 (o-fu). In the dried form in that photo, it's often added to miso soup, for example.

When written in kanji, seitan is rendered either as 製蛋 ("made of protein") or as 正蛋 ("correct protein").

Interestingly, as a product, seitan is sold here as "gluten meat" (グルテンミート) rather than as seitan.

Perhaps even more fascinating is that the Japanese Wikipedia entry that includes seitan is also for "gluten meat," and while the corresponding English entry is: "Wheat gluten (food)," the French is Seitan.

Each page has an explanation of the etymology of seitan:

Japanese:

セイタンはもともと桜沢如一が命名した日本語由来の名称だが、当時国内ではあまり普及しないまま欧米で発展して後に逆輸入されたため、「正蛋」「生蛋」「製蛋」など表記は諸説あって判然とせず、通常カタカナ書きされる。

Roughly, it says that seitan was named by Ohsawa based on Japanese, but was not originally popular in Japan. When it was later reverse-imported (逆輸入 gyaku yunyū)* to Japan, it was known by its Western name, seitan. Multiple kanji compounds exist for setian (「正蛋」「生蛋」「製蛋」), but it's usually written in katakana — or just called gluten meat, as above.

*逆輸入 = reimportation, a term the Japanese media love to use for "Made-in-Japan" people, products, and ideas that become popular abroad before their greatness is appreciated at home.

English:

In Japan, seitan, initially a rather salty macrobiotic seasoning that gradually evolved into a food, is not well known or widely available, despite the macrobiotic diet's Japanese origins. When used, the terms for this food are rendered in katakana as グルテンミート (Romanized "gurutenmīto," from the English "gluten meat"), or, rarely, セイタン ("seitan"). Outside macrobiotic circles, these terms are virtually unknown in Japan, and they do not typically appear in Japanese dictionaries.*

* I can verify this omission from Japanese dictionaries. Japan Knowledge, which aggregates data from dictionaries including but not limited to デジタル大辞泉 (Daijisen) and 日本国語大辞典 (Nihon kokugo daijiten), has no entry for seitan except in the English-Japanese プログレッシブ英和中辞典 (Progressive Eiwachū jiten), where it's described as a "vegetable-protein-containing meat substitute made from wheat gluten" (小麦グルテンから作られ,植物性たんぱくを含む肉の代用食品 komugi guruten kara tsukurare, shokubutsusei tanpaku o fukumu niku no daiyōhin).

French:

Son étymologie la plus communément admise en fait la combinaison de sei (être, devenir, à base de) et de la première syllabe de tanpaku (protéine). Ainsi, seitan signifie « à base de protéine ».

The OED gives this etymology:

Etymology: < Japanese seitan (apparently a1966 (see note); usually written in katakana; not listed in dictionaries of Japanese), probably < sei- raw, unprocessed, bio- (originally 'life, birth'; < Middle Chinese) + tan- (in tanpakutanpakushitsu protein; < Middle Chinese), or perhaps < Japanese sei- to be, become ( < Middle Chinese) + tan-.

The word is said to have been coined in the early 1960s by the Japanese founder of macrobiotics, Nyoichi (or Nyoiti) Sakurazawa, known in the West as George (or Georges) Ohsawa (1893–1966).

So, the OED is going with 生蛋, which, from what I can tell, is the least commonly invoked of the three kanji compounds listed by Japanese Wikipedia…

——

So far, I have not met a single Japanese person who has heard of seitan or who eats it.  Perhaps it's because of the reaction it provokes when eaten that it has not gained a foothold in Japan.

From a colleague who was born and grew up in Japan, but who has lived in America for the last three decades and more, though returning regularly to her homeland:

I understand that this food didn't catch on in Japan at all. (I had never heard of it when I was in Japan. I thought it was an English name.) It became popular in the West, and later it was imported back to Japan under the katakana name, seitan セイタン.  (I guess no one knew then that seitan was Japanese.)  That is the reason that it is very hard to trace it back to its Japanese origin.  I found seitan written in kanji as 正蛋 ("proper protein")、生蛋 ("vital protein")、 製蛋 ("made / manufactured protein") as possible candidates, but again no one is certain.   I also found that seitan is sold under the name gurutenmīto グルテンミート(gluten meat [another example of Wasei eigo 和製英語 {"Japanglish"}?] in Japan).

[VHM:  All translations of Japanese terms in this paragraph are by me.]

My gut instinct is that Ohsawa might have been thinking of seitan 精蛋 ("pure protein") when he coined the name.

Afterword

Satan waitin' ate in seitan;

Rootin' tootin' shootin' gluten.

[Thanks to Cecilia Segawa Seigle, and Heidi Mair]



20 Comments

  1. Maude said,

    December 21, 2018 @ 8:36 am

    I'm so surprised – back in the 90s in Japan, I often ate seitan found in lunch boxes or oden (winter fishcake stew with lots of things like konnyaku, daikon, seaweed, etc.). I found it absolutely delicious, no side effects. It was usually presented in the form of little triangles or bits in mountain vegetable side orders. I was in the countryside near Osaka (over 3 years).

  2. Victor Mair said,

    December 21, 2018 @ 8:53 am

    @Maude

    Did they call it "seitan" or something else?

  3. Molly Des Jardin said,

    December 21, 2018 @ 9:15 am

    Maude – maybe I never noticed it because it wasn't in anything I could eat! That is really interesting to hear that it was in oden and so on. I lived there on and off from 2003-2010. After I wrote Victor I started to wonder if now it is more available, along with tempeh etc., since awareness has probably been evolving.

  4. Robot Therapist said,

    December 21, 2018 @ 9:16 am

    I have "Eastern Vegetarian Cooking" (1983) by Madhur Jaffrey, which contains recipes for cooking gluten balls, and if my memory serves, for making them by washing the starch out of flour. From that, I assumed it was an Indian rather than Japanese thing. Of course, that was before gluten came to be regarded as Satan.

  5. Jonathan Smith said,

    December 21, 2018 @ 9:25 am

    "Bo duo" ("po to" in the linked source) apparently refers to hōtō/bótuō 餺飥 ( https://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/餺飥). No idea if this term remains in use with respect to Chinese as opposed to Japanese cuisine. It does seem to be mentioned in 齊民要術. History of the term looks like a mystery unto itself…

  6. Alexander Browne said,

    December 21, 2018 @ 9:26 am

    In Minneapolis, I've almost always seen it called mock duck. (Or maybe that's a variant, and the only one that is common?) It's pretty common at Vietnamese restaurants around here. My favorite is a curry mock duck banh mi.

  7. Philip Taylor said,

    December 21, 2018 @ 9:46 am

    I am intrigued by Victor's use of "non-glutinous" to refer to food(s) that contain no gluten. Chinese "glutinous rice" is, like all natural rices, gluten-free, so I am not convinced that "non-glutinous" does, in fact, mean "gluten-free". Of "glutinous", the OED says : "Of the nature of glue or gluten; viscid, sticky, gluey", so "of the nature of", rather than "containing", or so it seems to me. And of course in the UK, "Martindale" is famous as "The Extra Pharmacopœia", of which the full title is "The extra pharmacopœia of Martindale and Westcott", rather than being a store famed for its gluten-free food offerings …

  8. Alex said,

    December 21, 2018 @ 11:19 am

    Its funny I have a jar in my fridge.
    I started eating it when very young with congee. My entire family likes its and we would also have things like picked salty sweet cucumbers with congee.

    Every time we would drive into the Philadelphia Chinatown from Cherry Hill we would pick up maybe 10 jars of it.

    On the label it would side fried gluten.

    My parents in the house would call it mian jin

    It seems like a pretty regular thing for many in the Chinese community where I grew up.

    I rarely promote videos but I found this one extremely funny concerning the gluten free movement.

    How to Become Gluten Intolerant (Funny) – Ultra Spiritual Life episode 12

    one can search on youtube the awaken with JP channel.

  9. Alex said,

    December 21, 2018 @ 11:24 am

    @Alexander Browne

    yes in my college days on I saw more and more of that label "mock duck" for dishes as vegetarian alternative.

  10. Stephen Nightingale said,

    December 21, 2018 @ 11:27 am

    Sakurazawa is an interesting name. It means Cherry Blossom Swamp. I didn't know cherry blossoms flourished in swamps. Yanagisawa is much better grounded, it means Willow Swamp, and we know that willows like to have their feet wet.

  11. mike said,

    December 21, 2018 @ 11:46 am

    @Alexander Browne, mock duck is (usually) made out of seitan, but not all seitan is mock duck; it comes in other forms.

    I'd always assumed seitan was a Chinese thing, because there is some culture of temple Buddhist cuisine there which I don't know a lot about, but involves a tradition of mock meat which is at least interesting to Western vegetarians. May Wah market in New York City's Chinatown has a huge variety of these products and is interesting to people from both of these backgrounds.

  12. Trogluddite said,

    December 21, 2018 @ 12:20 pm

    @Alexander Browne
    Likewise living in Northern England; 'mock duck' is the only name I've ever heard used for a wheat-gluten food.

    @Philip Taylor
    Yes, I agree, I would take 'non-glutinous' to mean simply not sticky or viscous if the context were at all ambiguous. I don't recall ever noticing "non-glutinous" with Victor's more specific meaning in BrE in, for example, food marketing or dietary guidance for people with coeliac disease – it's always "gluten-free" (the ubiquity of the "X-free" idiom may have a part to play in this, of course.)

  13. Jim Breen said,

    December 21, 2018 @ 1:45 pm

    The big リーダーズ+プラス (Readers Plus) English-Japanese dictionary, which includes many terms not usually found in regular Japanese dictionaries, has an entry for seitan:

    — n セイタン《味付けした小麦のグルテンで, 肉の代替品として使われる》.
    [正しいタンパク源]

    It has the 正 and タン of 正しいタンパク源 (correct protein source) underlined to show they are the source of the "sei" and "tan". 正しい is read "tadashii" but the on-reading of 正 is "sei".

  14. Bloix said,

    December 21, 2018 @ 1:55 pm

    Glutinous just means sticky, viscous, glue-like.
    Gluten, from the same root, means a protein complex found in wheat and other grains.
    Any sticky stuff can be glutinous. Sticky rice, for example – which contains no gluten.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glutinous_rice

  15. Victor Mair said,

    December 21, 2018 @ 2:26 pm

    All right already.

    For the purposes of this post, non-glutinous –> gluten-free.

    But many sources do define it as:

    a. not glutinous

    b. without gluten

  16. ktschwarz said,

    December 21, 2018 @ 3:33 pm

    The word for "containing gluten" that is currently most used and accepted by dictionaries is glutenous, with glutenaceous out there but far behind. I'm rooting for the underdog glutenaceous, since a single unstressed letter is too thin a reed to support a distinction that's significant in cooking. In fact, you'll see cooking sites reassuring their readers that glutinous rice flour does not contain gluten.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    December 21, 2018 @ 3:41 pm

    From Chau Wu:

    Following Jonathan Smith in the LL Comments, I found it in Qimin yaoshu:

    齊民要術/卷第九
    餅法第八十二

    餺飥:挼如大指許,二寸一斷,著水盆中浸,宜以手向盆旁挼使極薄,皆急火逐沸熟煮。非直光白可愛,亦自滑美殊常。

    This is similar to your favorite 麵疙㾑, as is mentioned in the Wikipedia link given by Smith.

    =====

    VHM: So it is a wheat noodlish product, but more like gēda 疙瘩 / rivel / Spätzle / Eintropfsuppe.

    "Too hard to translate soup" (9/2/18)

    "Of knots, pimples, and Sinitic reconstructions" (11/12/18)

    "'Geda', part 3" (11/15/18)

  18. David Littleboy said,

    December 21, 2018 @ 8:53 pm

    FWIW, "swamp" is a horrifically bad translation for "sawa".

    If you ask a native Japanese speaker to describe a sawa, what s/he'll tell you is it's a place where the sun's shining, birds are singing, the water is clear and flowing*, and it's on a hillside/mountainside. No snakes, alligators, or dead bodies. And zori are the recommended/traditional footwear for sawanobori.

    (Sawa may have been used for swamp around 800 AD. Maybe.)

    *: The technical definition is something on the order of "the part of a stream or river between the source and the place where a defined channel is first formed.":)

  19. Andrew McCarthy said,

    December 22, 2018 @ 12:53 am

    So if seitan is "unnatural and wrong", does that make it satanic? ;)

  20. Doreen said,

    December 22, 2018 @ 10:05 am

    There is a vegan fast-food outfit (with two locations) in London called Temple of Seitan. http://templeofseitan.co.uk/

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