When you tell your mum you are on your way to Temple of Seitan, the missing definite article does not stop her from assuming you are on your way to some heathen monastery of hellfire. She asks me to repeat, and so I do, once more, until she is satisfied, all the while I imagine her mind like a busy freeway with panicked, confused, angry thoughts careening across the frame. ‘How dare he?!’, ‘Oh! Where did I go wrong?’, ‘I knew this would happen when we sent him abroad…’, ‘And after all I’ve done for him!’, and not to forget the evergreen, ‘This is all because of his father’.
‘Ma, it’s a restaurant called Temple of Seitan. I’m going there to eat’, I said eventually, thinking this would settle things. Obviously, the constant restatement of ‘Temple of Seitan’ did not placate my extremely religious mother, leading to her inevitable outburst that brought me to my senses, a barrage that was evident to everyone in the station I was waiting at, not because she was loud, not at all, but because my wincing face and stressed fingers to my forehead were signs reminiscent of boys being chastised by their mothers.
Eventually I got the opportunity to explain that seitan (pronounced: ‘say-tan’) was not a consequence of my unorthodox British accent but instead a meat-substitute, the name of which happens to be in the one of the restaurant I was visiting. I had to explain that it was how vegetarians and vegans were compensating for the lack of meat in their lives, that it was made of the proteins in wheat, and that I was going to try it for the first time at a vegan fast food restaurant. ‘Don’t worry ma!’, I added quickly, sensing the panic rising at another term, ‘vegan’, closely associated with Satan. ‘I’m not turning vegan, not any time soon anyway.’
I have to admit I was not too keen on the excitedly vegan Temple of Seitan. When Maddy showed me their Instagram where they showcased pictures of what looked to be crisply coated chicken strips and pretty looking chicken burgers, I confusedly looked at her and asked whether she was sure this place was vegan. She smiled cunningly at me as if she had planned for this reaction. It’s not chicken, she said, it’s seitan. And with that my interest was piqued.
Seitan is made of gluten, an incomplete protein found in wheat that contributes to the elasticity of dough and the buoyancy of bread. This raised another eyebrow because my prior assumption was that gluten was deemed devil food by health nuts and vegans, and that if you want to be considered part of this environmentally conscious, ethically stringent, health cognizant demographic, gluten would have to be a thing of the past. My knowledge of gluten extended as far as knowing that it causes some people to bloat and feel uncomfortable, and that it’s requirement in bread, dumplings and others foods I love, meant that I was never going to avoid it. I had just assumed that the current cultural aversion to gluten was due to irrational food phobias peddled by hypochondriacs who are traditionally fit and good looking, another fad if you will.
Turns out gluten isn’t so bad after all. Only a very small percentage of people actually have incurable celiac disease (which makes gluten avoidance a necessity for life). And not too many others actually feel uncomfortable and lethargic after consuming it. When I spoke to my flat mate who says she is part of the latter, she said that Novak Djokovic brought it to her attention with his refusal to eat anything with gluten in. She often wondered why she would have a bellyache after eating bread and soon realised it was the gluten causing the issues. Because she loves it, she’ll still have bread sometimes in spite of the discomfort but she cannot understand why others would avoid it otherwise. Djokovic’s statement may have helped a few people, but to many more others he has unjustly created another innocent victim for the nutritional inquisition to exorcise and condemn.
So the rise of seitan in the face of all this is very interesting. It seems to me that vegans everywhere are starting to crack under the self-imposed pressure of being healthier than everyone else, stimulating the rise of places like Temple of Seitan that are cropping up to satisfy the fatty, rich, indulgent food cravings of these pitiably ravenous and deprived people. In fact, I had said to Maddy a few weeks before we visited Temple that one of the reasons why more people have not swapped over to veganism was because of the lack of fast sinful food to gorge on when they so desired. Seeing how great the food looked online and reading all the positive hubbub around the place, I was actually rather excited to visit.
We arrived in Hackney at about half eleven and followed the Google map to our destination which was to open at noon. With time to spare, we strolled around the Empire theatre, walked into the nearby Sainsbury’s to thaw our fingers and then made our way past the still closed Temple to the large Tesco’s because I was desperate for a wee. When we got back to the restaurant at 12:06 there was already a line that extended into the street, and the tables outside were now all completely occupied. What in the world? Where did they come from?
Everything smelt absolutely delicious: tendrils of steam whirling their way into our nostrils from what looked to be the mac and cheese bowls and trays of ‘wings’ of people getting ready to eat. Standing in line I observed that the clientele were not as I envisaged them to be. Yes, you did have the colourfully haired, tattooed, pierced and ripped jean wearing crowd (most predictably the staff), but there were also people dressed for business, and others like us regular folk. This is always a good sign because you know that the people visiting aren’t doing so simply in the name of activism or ethical rectitude.
The space was very small, much like a tiny kebab shop with too few tables to be called a restaurant. While I ordered most of the menu, Maddy nabbed a spot for the both of us on a recently vacated section of the communal wood tables, so at least we did not have to eat uncomfortably. I got an organic ginger ale to wash everything down, evoking the same sentiments as getting a diet coke at KFC, and headed for our seat with all our food in paper bags like an American dad heading into his home after getting the groceries out of the car.
I was so happy that the food was not anticlimactic. I had been preparing myself for failure from the time I got off the train, so to bite into a crispy strip of seitan, whose breading was seasoned to spice-etched perfection, I could only smile and nod at my nervous and anticipating girlfriend. Your first bite into a piece of seitan is much like that of chicken breast but loses the similarity once the chewing begins. Its actual texture is more rubbery, a mixture between tofu and the more solid tempeh. It doesn’t taste of much on its own either, but with the addition of the sauces, and in combination with the vegan cheese and bacon in the burger, it is actually quite pleasant to eat.
Besides the wings, which were forgettable soggy flops, everything from the crunchy French fries and the delightfully creamy vegan mac and cheese (made with cashew nuts) to the strips and the burgers were pretty darn good. I want to say that I enjoyed it so much because my expectations were so low, but that would be unfair to Temple of Seitan. It is the only vegan place I’ve gone to where I’ve enjoyed their prepared meat-substitute, which is enough for me to recommend the place to people, especially those tentative about making the switch to veganism. However, I’m not quite sure my mum will be best pleased about this turn of events.
10 Morning Ln, London E9 6NA
Mains £4-£6; Sides £1-£5