The minute I opened the door, I was hit by a sweet smoke emanating from the fryers. “Come!” Master Chen ordered, tossing me a wok skimmer and ladle as he snatched a slippery, gray slab of dough from its cool water bath. Working fast, he hewed an outside flank, diced it into tiny teaspoon-sized chunks, and with a light squeeze, tossed the balls towards the wok walls, where they bounced down into the shimmering oil. Just seconds later, after sinking and spinning, the balls puffed outwards, doubling in size, and rose one-by-one to the surface.
“Fried wheat gluten.” He explained. Ah…
I was initially surprised to find, training with a monastery chef, that Master Chen used almost zero tofu in his cooking. A minor appetizer aside, I could not recall serving a single tofu entree in his restaurant. Maybe it was because of this that these little golden balls were so precious.
Not to be confused with American seitan — a tough, off-flavored tragedy derived from vital wheat gluten concentrate — this Chinese treasure was the painstakingly nurtured grandchild of a flour and water dough, kneaded, then repeatedly scoured under water until its entire starch content had been washed away. The result was a beautiful dough that formed the basis of five incredible and versatile plant proteins:
- Fried gluten puffs. Like the ones we were making.
- Poached wheat gluten rolls. A nationwide favorite at youth grillouts and street food stands.
- Risen and steamed cakes. Predominantly the bready kaofu in Shanghai and Taiwan, but also an un-named variety in northwestern Hui-Muslim cooking.
- Lotus gluten. A dried, chewy and porous delicacy of Shandong province.
- Fujianese salt water poached. The rarest and most functionally adaptive of them all.
While distinct from one another, all wheat gluten varieties had two important similarities. First, they had an uncanny ability to absorb any sauce you threw at them, while maintaining a delectable, tender chew. Second, they were more umami than any other protein you can think of, no matter meat or plant. (There’s a reason bread tastes so damn good… and it’s not just the carbs. The amino acid glutamate that makes up almost 50% of gluten is the basis of umami.*)
In Mandarin, the name for gluten is mianjin, which literally translates to “wheat muscle” or “wheat tendon.” Sounds very meaty. But while Master Chen would occasionally substitute gluten for meat, we mostly followed the Buddhist convention of using it to its own ends. In one popular dish, we would slice our gluten puffs flat, julienne them and fry them to a crisp, before a quick toss in the wok with doubly-crisp winter bamboo shoots and a tart, tomato-based vinaigrette. The result would always be stellar, especially when eaten alongside hand-rolled noodles. Another day as a throwaway lunch, Master Chen came out of the kitchen cradling a steaming bowl of red-braised Fujian gluten with taro. Move over soup dumplings. This gluten had absorbed so much liquid that it could drown you, releasing one chewy, juicy, anise-flavored explosion after another. This stuff was literally as indulgent as pig trotters… Except with 10x the protein, twice the flavor, and half the saturated fats.
Having these ingredients back home would be game-changing, I thought, imagining what an Italian or Mexican chef could whip up with these things. But I quickly realized that my favorite of the varieties, the Fujian gluten, was nowhere to be seen outside of Master Chen’s restaurant and supplier network. I literally could not find second restaurant that served it. Even Nanputuo’s temple kitchen, the place where Master Chen’s cuisine originated, had long given up this gluten, opting instead, as most vegetarian restaurants were doing, to replace it with mock meat or mushrooms. The only, only place that still sold it was the largest wet market in town.
Determined to find the source of the ingredient, I asked the first seller I could find — “do you make this?”
“Of course!” She seemed uninclined to interact with me.
“That’s amazing!” I continued on. “I so love the ingredient and would die to share it with friends back home. Could you teach me how to make it?”
The seller recoiled, squeezing a piece of cabbage she had just picked up. “No! It’s not me who makes it! We get it from our suppliers!” And without even asking if I would like to buy any, she stomped over to the opposite end of her stand.
I tried asking another seller. “Where do you get your gluten?”
“From our suppliers!”
“And where do your suppliers get it from?”
“There’s an entire chain of middlemen. Who knows!”
None of the other sellers offered more information, but I started spotting, towards the back of their stands, larger bulk bags filled with gluten, that all seemed to mention one location — Fuzhou.
Fuzhou was the provincial capital of Fujian province, an industrial city several hundred kilometers north from Xiamen. I bought a bullet train ticket and within one hour was wandering through produce markets of an entirely different city. Yet, after scouring three locations and conducting all manner of inquiries, I still could not find anything.
Resigned, I decided to try one last market, which a seller told me was the biggest in all of Fujian Province.
Driving up, I realized this was not just one market; stretching as far as I could see was an entire campus of subdivided ingredient districts. Signs suggested that bulk fruits took up the entire three hangers to my left, root vegetables were just behind, and bottled oils, dried ingredients, and eggs were another kilometer down the road. After wandering lost and confused, I was eventually pointed in the direction of, what one seller suggested, were the wheat gluten merchants. At the far tip of the most southward subdivision, in plastic buckets sitting on the ground next to all sorts of dried bamboo, I finally spotted little rolls of brown, grayish dough. Omg! But getting closer, I saw that this was not the Fujian gluten I was looking for, but rather the ubiquitous grilling variety.
“Boss, do you carry round wheat gluten? That looks like … this?” I showed him a picture on my phone.
“No, never seen anything like it. We all just carry these.” He pointed to the rolls. I continued down the line of merchants; each echoed the first, until I was at the end of the line, nowhere left to go. Seeing the growing disappointment on my face, the last seller called out:
“The manufacturers don’t make that variety anymore! It’s too complicated, way more so than these. It’s expensive, and there’s no market. You’d have better luck calling them directly and bulk ordering.”
Damn! So that’s what was going on… I thanked the man.
It seemed like this ingredient really was dying, I reflected on the train back to Xiamen. Restaurants would not use it. Producers would not produce it. Sellers would not sell it. There was no way in hell I would be able to import it to the U.S.
I guessed I’d have to learn to make it myself.