Food Chat With a Seitan Master

— by Hannah Lee

Michael Cassady changed his diet in 1979 and got his niche in life.  He first thought eating only Chinese food would be healthy, but he did not know about the MSG used in restaurants.  He later tried the macrobiotic diet, but then he discovered the miracle of making seitan by hand.

Made with only flour and water, the glutinous mass is rinsed repeatedly — with cold and hot water, alternatively — to get rid of the starch, until only the protein remains.  First developed in China, seitan, also known as wheat gluten, is a healthy, low-calorie source of protein for vegetarians and vegans alike.  Herbs and spices can be added to simulate any ethnic dish in place of meat.

More after the jump.
Home cooks could use a short-cut method using vital wheat gluten (certified kosher, available in local stores such as Whole Foods), but both Michael and Fernando Peralta of Vgë Café in Bryn Mawr agree that it makes a tough product.

Michael now uses a Hobart mixer to turn out 240- to-250-pound batches of seitan at a time.  He recently switched to using smaller 50-pound bags of flour, to spare his back from the constant weight-lifting.  He uses a special bowl that’s perforated with holes.

The process requires a continual flushing of water.  Alas, the plumbing in his former-delicatessen space in Florence, NJ limits the speed of production.  Michael thinks he would be well-served by a French drain, which is sometimes still seen in old houses on the Main Line as was in mine.  (A French drain has perforated hollow pipes along the bottom to quickly vent water that seeps down through the upper gravel or rock.)  Between daily delivery runs, he keeps 15-hour days, because he kneads in the savory spices by hand.  Michael says, “You can’t rush the process.”

Michael supplies seitan to a variety of Philly restaurants, some of which also sell meat, such as Interstate Draft House in the Fishtown neighborhood, Sketch Burger on Girard Avenue, Monk’s Café on 16th and Spruce (which offers Belgian beer on tap), and POPE (for Pub on Passyunk East) in South Philly.  

He also supplies nine branches of Whole Foods, including the stores in Wynnewood, Callowhill, and Plymouth Meeting, which he says is the largest store in this area.

Michael lived in Florida for 16 years, making seitan by hand for friends and cancer patients, but he returned to the Philly area when his father got sick (he has since died).  Now, he lives in his childhood home and takes care of his ailing mother.  He dreams of running a vegetarian restaurant, much like Peralta’s Vgë Café, which relies on his seitan.

On June 20, he will be participating in a fundraiser for Philabundance, to be held at the Market Place Design Center.  He will be the only vegan chef in attendance.

Curry Masala Seitan (adapted from Michael Cassady‘s recipe)
Makes 4 servings
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 10 minutes

  • 4 tbsp canola oil
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 2 cloves
  • ½ tsp minced garlic
  • ½ tsp minced ginger
  • 1 medium tomato, diced
  • 1 small onion, chopped finely
  • ½ tsp curry powder
  • ½ tsp turmeric
  • 1 tsp garam masala
  • 1 lb seitan, drained and cut into small pieces
  • Salt, about 1 tsp or to taste
  1. Heat a skillet over high heat; pour in oil and fry the cumin and cloves.  
  2. Add the ginger and garlic.  Saute for one minute over a medium-high flame.  
  3. Add the tomato and onion.  Stir-fry until the tomato is almost pasty and the onions are translucent.  
  4. Add the remaining spices and let the mixture cook for 10 minutes.  
  5. Add the seitan and heat for 10 minutes.  
  6. Add salt to taste.