In 2018, I joined The Seitan Appreciation Society, the greatest Facebook group on earth. Seitan ― pronounced “say-TAN,” not “satan” ― is an often misunderstood meat substitute, not to be confused with the devil. It also shouldn’t be confused with other meat substitutes like tofu and tempeh, in that seitan isn’t made from soy, but rather wheat.
Since joining the group, I’ve spent most Sundays whipping up scrumptious fake meat based on the group’s latest insights and ideas. I’ve upped my vegan cooking game tenfold, thanks to the group, but my obsession has always felt a bit niche and weird. When I tell my friends about The Society, I know I’m giving them “One time? At band camp?” vibes.
So, imagine how my heart leaped to discover that Gen Z has been happily making seitan on TikTok, inspired by user futurelettuce’s “two ingredient vegan chicken.” The trend’s been covered everywhere, and YouTube is ablaze with attempts. The moment I watched futurelettuce’s video, I knew he, too, was a Society member. He quickly confirmed this over email and agreed with me that some of the most innovative plant-based cooking going on today is happening in the group. Thanks to futurelettuce, seitan has entered the zeitgeist. It’s time to spread the word.
But what the heck is seitan?
In much of the English-speaking world, seitan refers to a meat substitute made from gluten, the protein component of wheat. It can be made two ways: with vital wheat gluten, a powdered form of already-isolated protein; or by kneading a ball of dough underwater to wash the starch away. The latter takes longer, but it’s thrilling to watch the stretchy, protein-blob emerge, then cook it into fibrous “meat.”
(And if you’re wondering why vegans would want to eat something meat-like, futurelettuce puts it simply: “Veganism isn’t about not eating meat. It’s about not eating animals.”)
Seitan is nothing new, as many responders to futurelettuce were quick to point out; nor is it a “weird white vegan thing.” Of her Singaporean Chinese heritage, Society member Jaki Teo wrote on Instagram: “Mock meat is so common in our dietary culture that nobody gives a single f. Vegans eat it, non-vegans eat it, and we even offer it to dead people at their graves.”
Yancy Nurse, a commenter on BuzzFeed’s futurelettuce post, also reminisced about her Barbadian grandmother washing flour. “I never knew where she learned it from,” Nurse told HuffPost. “But when she made it, everyone showed up. Even meat eaters loved it!”
Futurelettuce told BuzzFeed: “People have [asked] ‘How did you figure this out?’ Which I feel bad about because these methods date back to China thousands of years ago.”
Indeed, gluten-based faux sausage and eel recipes appear in Chinese texts as early as 1301. In America, the 1930s gluten experiments of the Seventh-day Adventists birthed, among other curiosities, canned veggie hotdogs. A jerky-like product dubbed seitan was brought to America from Japan in the late 1960s by macrobiotics founder George Ohsawa, and the word evolved to refer to all gluten products in English. Western seitan recipes have become increasingly complex, but until I joined The Society I had no idea I could come close to the deliciousness I’d tasted at Buddhist vegetarian restaurants in my own kitchen.
Enter The Seitan Appreciation Society
The first time I scrolled through the Facebook group, my jaw dropped. Home cooks from all over the world were making gluten-based steaks, turkeys, hams, lambs, spam, bologna, salami, bacon, bratwurst, pork belly, salmon, drumsticks, wings, nuggets, oxtails — any meat I plugged into the search bar brought back hits.
For flavor and texture, people used miso, wine, douchi, molasses, MSG, cocoa, coffee, marmite, rice paper, sourdough, sauerkraut, yuba, tapioca, “bones” made of parsnips, beetroot powder, and on and on. Techniques ranged from simple braising and roasting to sous vide and brining for days. I couldn’t sleep for inspiration.
The Society was created in May of 2017 by U.K.-based Mike Rigby, a tireless admin of many vegan groups. “Lacey Siomos was well-established as an amazing home chef, so I picked her straight away to help set it up,” Rigby said.
Siomos, the inventor of Chickwheat — a shredded chicken sub made from chickpeas, vital wheat gluten and a solid eight minutes in the food processor — was perfecting those elusive shreds when Rigby reached out.
“I’m a big fan of open source,” Siomos said. “We wanted a way to share ideas.”
“Once the geniuses of the seitan game moved in,” Rigby explained, “we had a lot of interest.”
Today, The Society has almost 80,000 members and grows every day. Though some early heavy hitters have moved on, there’s no shortage of geniuses. “Like, it’s actual food science. Molecular gastronomy. It’s fascinating,” Siomos said. “It started back with Buddhist chefs and now there are people all across the globe making amazing seitan.”
No one in the group makes more elegant fake meats than Aleksandra Feodorovna. Her posts have included filet mignon, salmon en papillote, steak tartare, a turducken, and a pâte feuilletée-inspired ham.
“I started cooking with my grandmother when I was 5,” said Feodorovna, an addiction counselor born in Mexico, based in Houston. “She was the first person I ever saw washing flour — this is 1966. Meat in Mexico then was expensive. I was mesmerized that a ball of dough turned into something like that!”
“Cooking is my form of activism,” Feodorovna added. “I share my food with co-workers and friends. Pâte feuilletée isn’t a technique for everybody — it takes a long time. But the results are amazing. I took that ham to work and they were like, ‘This is meat.’ And I’m like, ‘No, it’s wheat.’”
Currently, Feodorovna is documenting her non-seitan cooking in a group of her own and is working on a cookbook. “Mike has provided a wonderful meeting place for everybody,” she said.
Blogger and mom Kat Ott’s lunchmeat recipes have been many members’ (including futurelettuce’s) first seitans.
“I was inspired to dive deeper into experimenting once I joined The Society,” Ott said. “I was spending a lot on prepackaged vegan lunchmeats for my kids. I wanted to create a deli turkey that would slice super thin like the brands they liked.”
While Ott and Feodorovna remain vital wheat gluten devotees, the washed flour method is having a moment. Yessica Infante, a sports center employee and mom from California, eliminated meat and dairy for health, but her family once enjoyed wings and steak.
“I love the chewiness,” Infante said. “I was like, ‘If we’re going to make this work, I have to have some mock meat we’re all going to enjoy.’ When I learned to wash flour, I couldn’t believe it. The flavor was so good.”
Infante now has YouTube tutorials for drumsticks, brisket, tacos al pastor and oxtails in birria sauce (jicama and rice paper stand in for bones and tissue).
“My family has a rating system,” she said with a laugh. “If a recipe’s an 8 out of 10 or above, I post it. If not, I play around more.”
The Society’s support gave her the confidence to start her channel. “People in the group are asking for my recipe, so why not deliver?”
Mark Thompson, aka Sauce Stache
Like everyone else I spoke to, Infante cites as an influence Mark Thompson, aka Sauce Stache. And Thompson, when we chatted, cited Infante right back. “I hope her stuff takes off,” he said. “During this seitan boom people are sharing my videos, but it’s like, share hers! That brisket’s mind-blowing!”
This enthusiasm permeates his channel — a food-sciencey test kitchen devoted to plant-based everything (including cracking the code on Beyond Meat sausages’ snap).
During a bout of vegan bacon tests, commenter Nigel Frazer-Ashbrook, a sign language interpreter from Scotland whose butter beany creation was ripping through The Society, suggested Thompson try his recipe. Thompson did a riff and promptly joined The Society himself.
While Thompson’s experiments have brought ingredients like methylcellulose to the seitan sphere, the inspiration goes both ways. Society member Oncle Hu’s pastrami, which involves washing out less starch to create “fatty” pockets, was the latest innovation to inspire a Sauce Stache video. “That was something really wild,” Thompson said.
Back to the future(lettuce)
Futurelettuce, too, is an Oncle Hu fan: “We message back and forth, he taught me a lot.” When I ask how it feels to have made washed flour viral, he’s thoughtful. “If I were wanting to see something on TikTok that was surprising ... well, washing flour was something that surprised me more than anything.”
“I have a bit of regret that I didn’t go into more detail in the first video,” he added. “Some people don’t wash enough. They end up with fried bread. My dream is that someone watches, goes, ‘That’s interesting!’ and looks it up. I didn’t even have measurements! It’s as basic as it gets.”
If you’re ready to get beyond basic, The Society is here for you. While it is full of geniuses, the soul of the group are the thousands of members who share daily encouragement, techniques, incredible tutorial recommendations and jokes about how stretched gluten looks like, well, see for yourself below.
Come join us (read the pinned FAQ!) and sink your teeth into homemade meat made of wheat!