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Fu, The Original Seitan

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This article is written by Anna Wildman at Traverse (a publication that helps to debunk Japan through a fresh perspective).

How traditional Buddhist cuisine is connected to modern-day veganism

My fascination with shojin ryori, or Buddhist cuisine, began with a family trip to Koya-san in 2016. Built in the early 800s, Koya-san is a secluded Buddhist mountaintop temple town in Wakayama prefecture. Visitors can stay overnight in the temples and enjoy Buddhist cuisine, which happens to be vegan. 
As a newly minted vegan, I was shocked to learn that there is an entire sector of Japanese cuisine dedicated to vegetarianism that I had no idea about. 

Shojin Ryori stems from Zen Buddhism, which forbids animal violence as it interferes with the spirit. It is said to have been introduced to Japan in 552 AD, the same time that Zen Buddhism came to Japan. 

Along with its immaculate presentation, it incorporates the following components. 

  • Five colors (white, green, yellow, black, red)
  • Five Flavors (bitter, sweet, sour, salty, savory)
  • Five preparation methods (steamed, boiled, raw, stewed, roasted)
  • Five plates (soup bowl, rice bowl, bowl with lid, flat plate, and small plate). 
  • Five elements: earth, fire, metal, wood, water
Shojin ryori meal

Some common dishes found in shojin ryori include koya-dofu (rehydrated tofu), konnyaku (konjac), goma-dofu (sesame tofu), yuba (tofu skin), konbu (kelp), and, last but not least, fu (wheat gluten). 

Except for fu, I had previously tried all of these foods before my trip to Koya-san.

So I asked my mom, “What is fu made from?” 

Thinking that it was perhaps a type of tofu (I mean, they do share a syllable), I was surprised to learn that it’s made from wheat gluten. 

I then immediately thought of seitan, which is made with vital wheat gluten. Is it the same thing? Which came first? Why is no one talking about fu in the vegan community? 

I had so many questions. 

For starters, let’s begin with what fu, or seitan, is. It is essentially gluten that is extracted from wheat flour. What’s left is a high-protein, meaty texture. In fact, there are 75 grams of protein per 100 grams. By comparison, a chicken breast has 31 grams of protein per 100 grams. 

In the West, seitan has a stretchy, chewy texture and is used as a meat substitute for burgers, wings, or roasts. It tastes and looks nothing like fu, although they use the same ingredients. 

In Japan, fu usually comes in two forms– yaki (grilled/dried), or nama (raw). Yaki-fu looks like a large crouton and is typically put in soups. Nama-fu is chewy and looks more like mochi, and is typically grilled on a skewer and topped with miso sauce.

Nama fu. Courtesy of https://jpnfood.com/archives/8334

Upon further research, I also learned that even the word seitan comes from Japanese. It was coined back in the 1960s by the founder of the macrobiotic diet, George Ohsawa

The Japanese characters for seitan are divided into two: sei and tan. 

The character for sei is widely disputed– some claim it comes from the character 正, which means correct or proper. Others claim it comes from the character 成, meaning “made of,” and yet another group believe it comes from the 植物性 (shokubutsusei), which means “plant-based.”

Tan, on the other hand, is quite straightforward. It is believed to come from the word タンパク (tanpaku), or protein. 

So, put together, it could have varying meanings such as “proper protein,” “made of protein,” or “plant-based protein.” 

Interestingly, however, Japanese people do not use the word seitan when referring to the western version of wheat gluten. They instead use グルテンミート, or gluten meat. 

Other meat substitutes used widely in vegan cooking also stem from Asia. Tofu originated in China and was introduced to Japan thousands of years ago. This is, of course, now a ubiquitous ingredient enjoyed by vegans and non-vegans alike. Tempeh, or fermented soybean patty, is a traditional Indonesian food used in dishes like gado gado and tempeh goreng. Nowadays, however, it is popular around the world and can be found in many grocery stores.

Indonesian tempeh with rice

Another ingredient, jackfruit, also comes from Southeast and South Asia. For the uninitiated, jackfruit is an enormous fruit that can weigh up to 100 lbs or 45 kg. It is eaten either young (unripened) or mature (ripened). Young jackfruit has a neutral flavor and meaty texture and is typically used as a meat substitute for curries and stews. 

Wheat gluten itself is also originally from China, as Chinese Zen Buddhists are the ones who brought it over to Japan in the 6th century. 

Fu, tofu, tempeh, jackfruit… the list goes on. While western countries like the US and UK are at the forefront of the vegan movement, for centuries it has actually been the Asian countries cooking the “mock meat” products that we take for granted nowadays.

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