Seriously Asian: Wheat Gluten


Like tofu, wheat gluten has been dismissed by some carnivores as a vegetarian mainstay that only health food nuts and hippies eat. Wheat gluten certainly is a healthy food, made by washing wheat flour dough with water until only the elastic mass is left. Like tofu, it's low in fat and high in protein. One slice of wheat gluten, about the size of a modest slice of cake, contains as much as 25 grams of protein!

Yet with its delightfully chewy texture and wheaty, wholesome flavor, wheat gluten is completely underappreciated.

While tofu has gained popularity, wheat gluten hasn't really. You're not likely to see it at restaurants, unless it's vegan or at certain Asian establishments.

"Imagine the spongy interior of a loaf of ciabatta, only firmer and more dense."

Asians have been enjoying wheat gluten in various forms for centuries. In Chinese markets you'll find it next to the soy products. The loaves of wheat gluten must be cooked and sliced before eaten. Imagine the spongy interior of a loaf of ciabatta, only firmer and more dense. Taste-wise, the loaves are mildly fermented. There are amorphous clumps of wheat gluten, also known as seitan, which are even denser in texture. And the Chinese eat a lot of marinated wheat gluten: the clumps are soaked in fragrant oil and marinated with peanuts or shitake mushrooms so that each tiny bit of gluten sops up the flavors of the marinating liquid.

Like tofu, wheat gluten is prized in various Asian cuisines for its ability to absorb any flavor. You can cut it up into cubes and add it to your soups and stews, or you can parboil wheat gluten and toss it with your choice of oils and dressing. This week's recipe is inspired by one of my favorite wheat gluten preparations from one of my favorite places in New York City, Xian Famous Foods.

Xian's famous house dressing—a pungent mixture of chili oil, tahini sauce, Sichuan peppercorns, and various other aromatics—dresses their signature "liang pi mian," or "cold skin" noodles (which, if you haven't tried them, are impossibly bouncy, slick, and perfect). Cubes of wheat gluten in this cold noodle dish absorb the oily dressing.

Only a few refreshing additions (mung bean sprouts and cucumber) are used to complete the ensemble. In my version, I round out the flavors with dollops of spicy bean paste, a Sichuan staple condiment, as well as toasted and finely ground chilies, cloves, cinnamon, and star anise. For a long while, I thought there was meat broth in Xian's dressing, but it turns out that the nutty flavor of tahihi paste was the only ingredient necessary to give the sauce body and depth of flavor.

This dressing may not be exactly like Xian Famous Food's house dressing but it's a pretty nice approximation. You'll want to use it for more than just wheat gluten, too. I like using it to dress shirataki noodles, which can be too bland alone. Having a jar of the dressing on hand is not a bad idea for weeknight dinners.

Finally, extra wheat gluten may be frozen and stored for months without any noticeable change in freshness and texture.