In this week's Cafe review, we explore the many faces of mien chin, or wheat gluten. First served as a meat substitute for the vegetarian Buddhists of ancient China, wheat gluten is also powdered and sold in health food stores as seitan. In Shanghainese cuisine, gluten is appreciated by non-vegetarians for its unique texture.
Of the three varieties on the menu at Shanghai Café on Bellaire, the sponge form was the most intriguing. "Baked spongy gluten," or kao fu, is made by leavening wheat gluten to form bubbles, and then baking or steaming it. Known as "juicy gluten," it is served with sauces that are absorbed in the "sponge."
Our guide to Shanghai cuisine, Pei "Roy" Wang, grew up eating this food. He was born in Northern China, but his mother was Shanghainese. Roy also recommended the fried gluten, which was served in a soup with black mushrooms. The third variety of gluten looked like slices of egg whites -- it was served cold tossed with green vegetables.
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Currently, we are on the lookout for a fascinating Taiwanese gluten that has been molded and layered to resemble duck flesh, complete with bumpy skin. It's sold in cans labeled "vegetarian mock duck."