Is it just me, or is the packaging for Trader Joe’s Tzatziki Creamy Garlic Cucumber Dip really weird? The big red “LOW FAT!” flag, the serving suggestions awkwardly crammed over to one side, the semi-unreadable font on the gray background of the low-grade Photoshop job. It reminds me of their weird chocolate-covered banana packaging. It’s the sort of packaging that leaves you wondering what you’re looking at “What’s in there?” you ponder, “Modeling clay? Deck varnish?” Nope, it’s food.
Most of the time, TJ’s does a good job repackaging the third party products that they source. In this case however, even the “Trader Joe’s” brand name looks shoehorned in. Nevertheless, this is a classic case of judging a book by its cover, as the tzatziki sauce within is quite nice.
Let us spend a moment on the truly awesome word that is “tzatziki”. It’s one of those dynamite cuisine words that not only sounds cool, and is spelled cool, but also makes you feel really cool to drop casually into conversation. Like “shwarma”. Throw some tzatziki on that shwarma. Sounds nice doesn’t it? Yo – buddy! Throw some tzatziki on that shwarma! The word itself is popularly attributed to Turkish, but like many foods of shared Greek/Middle Eastern/Balkan origin there’s a considerable amount of bickering over who developed it first/best.
At any rate, as we all know, tzatziki is a somewhat zesty dip/sauce made from plain yogurt and flavored with a variety of seasonings – in this case, salt, garlic, dill, mint, white pepper and, of course, lemon juice. The result is a smooth, cool mixture that comes on mild, then surprises you a moment later with a complex burst of citrus and herbs. Tzatziki exists through out the Mediterranean and Middle East in a variety of forms – extending even as far out as India where the classic yogurt side dish raita can be considered a close relative. The type Trader Joe’s is serving us up here is the familiar Greek variety, prepared with thinly sliced cucumber mixed directly into the herbed yogurt.
In fact, Trader Joe’s tzatziki is one of the better varieties I’ve had. The dip is quite loose, but it doesn’t lack in flavor. The lemon juice comes through clearly alongside the mellow, long tones of the creamy yogurt. The dill and mint come through clearly in the after notes , but the dish isn’t overloaded by their flavors, and they leave room for the tail note of languid, cool cucumber and mild garlic to linger on the tongue.
As appealing as that is, it’s made better by the extremely reasonable nutritional profile. Each 30 gram (two teaspoon) serving has only 30 calories, and two grams of fat. Even the sodium content isn’t that bad, at 65 mg per serving. For such a healthy dip you’re getting a surprising, and satisfying, amount of flavor.
The go-to applications for tzatziki sauce are gyros and pitas, but it goes awesome with pita chips as well. Even if you’re not whipping up Mediterranean food very often, it still makes an awesome side dish for any meal that could do with a little spread on top, or cooling down on the side. In other words – throw some tzatziki on that shwarma!
Would I Recommend It: Yes, so long as you don’t mind cucumbers in your food.
Would I Buy It Again: Definitely – I’m always in the market for good dips.
Final Synopsis: A solid version of tzatziki with plenty of pep.
Trader Joe’s Toasted Pumpkin Seed Oil sounds interesting, looks off-putting and costs $9.99 a can. Maybe you’re intrigued by it – but can you really justify such a purchase? If you write a blog where that’s your only function you can!
Let me save you some time, and ten bucks, right now. This oil is not worth your hard earned cash, but before I start maligning it, let’s talk about what Toasted Pumpkin Seed Oil is in the first place.
Toasted pumpkin seed oil owes its entire, modern day existence to the region Styria in south east Austria. Styria is probably most famous for being the home of 2004’s Nobel Prize in Literature winner Elfriede Jelinek. If for some reason you’re unfamiliar with Jelinek’s musical use of voices and counter voices in such important works as The Piano Teacher, then I should probably mention that Sytria is also the birthplace of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
At any rate, toasted pumpkin seed oil is, as Trader Joe’s puts it, “a distinct culinary specialty in Styria”. The fact of that matter is, that’s a gross understatement. The pumpkin as we know it is a New World crop – with no existence in Europe until Chrisopher Columbus brought some back with him from his exotic expeditions. The famous orange gourd spread to Austria where, in the 1600’s, someone got the bright idea to roast the pumpkin seeds then, instead of eating them like a barbaric ape, run them through a press and collect the intensely dark green/brown oil that dribbled out. It was an instant hit.
Such a hit, in fact, that the Empress of Austria felt compelled to ban the stuff in 1773 out of fear that people were guzzling it all up. The edict stated: “This healthy oil is unique and much too precious for using it in tasty meals and therefore should rather be used as a medicine. So it shall not be used as a culinary delicacy anymore but shall be collected and distributed only by the apothecaries.”
The medicinal qualities of the oil being somewhat dubious, it eventually returned to general use in Austria where it is generally consumed in one of three common ways: as a simple salad dressing, as a dip for bread or, strangely, as a condiment for vanilla ice cream. What it absolutely cannot be used for is cooking. Trader Joe’s even warns you against this right on the can, and I quote: “Don’t use it for cooking as it burns easily.”
Given all that, plus the high price tag, plus the strange and enigmatic can, you’re bound to assume this is some dynamite stuff, right?
Unfortunately, as much as I wanted to love this obscure oil, I was totally nonplussed by it. The big selling point of the pumpkin seed oil is its “intense nutty flavor”. And it certainly is true that the oil has a strong nutty taste – but it also tastes an awful lot like slightly burnt pumpkin seeds. Stronger, and longer lingering, than the nutty taste is this slightly charred taste, and of course the very pumpkin-y flavor of the pepitas.
On paper that still sounds like it should be reasonably good, but in reality it was very flat, and somewhat bland. Feeling certain that I must be wrong, I conducted an informal tasting panel with the oil and some of Trader Joe’s fine artisanal bread. All four voices found the same as myself – the oil is okay, but there’s nothing particularly winning about it. As one taste tester put it – it’s fine, I’d eat it if I had it in front of me, but I’d never request it. When you’re trying to sell 250ml of oil for ten bucks, that’s quite the damning review.
I’ll wrap this up on two final thoughts. The first, and most perplexing, is why Trader Joe’s didn’t wait until their annual Pumpkin Madness in October to trot out this product. It really doesn’t seem to have enough value to stand on it’s own, but it would have looked wonderful next to the pumpkin cider and pumpkin trees.
Second, my favorite thing about the oil was it’s color. The TJ’s product copy calls it “eerily dark green”, and while that’s about right it’d actually be more accurate to say it’s “eerily dichromatic”. When you pour this oil onto a white plate, it’s a thick blackish red, almost like a balsamic vinegar. When spread out thin, however, it becomes an intense spring green. That may not be enough to win me over, but it is pretty cool.
Really, the main issue here is that Trader Joe’s Toasted Pumpkin Seed Oil doesn’t exist in a vacuum. As far as bread dips and salad dressings go, it’s alright but I’d go for some nice olive oil of this stuff every time. At least I can cook with the olive oil. If it wanted a little extra nuttiness I’d pick up some dukkah as well.
Like the Himalyan Salt with Truffles before it, Trader Joe’s Toasted Pumpkin Seed Oil might make a good gift for your gourmand buddy, but that’s about it. It’s not that the oil is without value, it’s just not worth the price of admission.
Would I Recommend It: Not unless they drop the price.
Would I Buy It Again: No, I already have more than I need.
Final Synopsis: A nutty specialty oil that costs more than it’s worth.
Adventures in guacamole continue with Trader Joe’s Spicy Guacamame Spicy Edamame Dip– a 100% edamame based gucamole. Having just reviewed Trader Joe’s semi-guac, the Reduced Guilt Guacamole with Greek Yogurt, it was a no brainer to pick up this brand new little doozy sitting on the shelf right next to it.
At first glance, this “guacamame” seems to combine the healthy aspects of the lite guacamole from last week, with the puns-manship of Avacado’s Number Guacamole – the best of both world’s surely! Of course the proof, as always, is in the pudding.
The package of Guacamame proudly boasts that it contains 40% fewer calories and 70% less fat than regular guacamole. How does that stack up to our previous low cal, low fat, reduced guilt guacamole? Pretty closely, actually. The Guacamame has 35 calories per 30 gram serving and 1.5 grams of fat. The Reduced Guilt Guacamole, on the other hand, has 30 caloires per 30 gram serving, and 2 grams of fat.
That means, if you eat this guac instead of that guac, you’ll have had 5.5 grams less fat, but 55 more calories. There’s also, like, one more carb / serving in this one. To me that’s a small enough difference that this grudge match can be settled on taste alone.
Of course, that raises the question – isn’t Trader Joe’s just undermining their own efforts by making two products fight for the same, narrow conceptual space? Does TJ’s really have room for more than one non-traditional, diet-friendly quasi-guacamole? I’m sure market forces will decide this one ultimately, but it seems weird. Honestly, this feels like another Fruit Bar / Fruit Wrap style inter-company rivalry.
So that brings us to taste. The sad truth, in my opinion, is that the somewhat subpar reduced-guilt guacamole from last week is still better than this Guacamame. Before I can even get started on this, it needs to be said that Guacamame is much better thought of as a bean dip than anything like really guacamole. That’s hardly surprising given the all-beans-no-avocados approach of the dip. It may be green like guacamole, it might even be spicy like guacamole, but it has the same sort of mediocre taste and, more importantly, has the same mouth feel of a bean dip. You know that sort of loose gritty feeling you get from a hummus or pinto dip? That’s the exact same feeling you get here.
Even taken on the grounds of being a spicy bean dip alone it’s not great. The dip is very loose – much looser than most bean dips, and certainly nothing like guacamole. The edamame beans have been blended into a single, smooth, slightly running mash alongside some tofu, jalapenos and starch. It certainly lights up your mouth with a touch of fire, but beyond that there’s no particular flavor to enjoy – just that bean-y grit. With nary a chunk of anything, let alone avocado, in sight I must once again wonder if the Gucamame would have fared better if Trader Joe’s never tried to compare it to guacamole in the first place.
Shockingly, our Guacamame goes under the Trader Jose’s brand name. Really, TJ? You’re trying to tie your experimental non-guacamole made from Japanese soybeans to a rich Hispanic heritage? A spicy edamame dip made with tofu and modified tapioca starch, just like they serve up in the old school cantinas on the backstreets of Veracruz? I wouldn’t mind it so much if you hadn’t oddly left the “Jose” name off of the reduced-guilt guacamole. It all goes to make me increasingly suspicious that the naming office of Trader Joe’s is run by a single, over-worked monkey who’s heart just isn’t in it any more. Also he might be having troubles at home.
At any rate, there might just be enough body and flavor to replace a spicy bean dip with Guacamame, but certainly not your guacamole.
Would I Recommend It: I’d recommend the reduced-guilt variety first.
Would I Buy It Again: I would not. There are much better gucamoles out there.
Final Synopsis: A weak guacamole substitute made from edamame soybeans and tofu.
“Reduced Guilt”, as in Trader Joe’s Reduced Guilt Chunky Guacamole, is one of those phrases that are a little too marketing-y for me. What does that really mean, “reduced-guilt”? We all just want to enjoy ourselves in life, right? If you’re like me, that means repressing and/or ignoring the constant nagging feeling of guilt that would otherwise hound you at all moments, threatening to drag you down the muddy hill of self-loathing into the murky bogs of depression. Free-floating guilt, we all got it – do we really need Trader Joe insinuating it into our lives even here, in the vegetable aisle?
Here I was, in danger of feeling pretty good about myself for a moment, putting a bag of shredded carrots into my cart, making positive decisions and following a healthy path! Except, oh man, there’s the Reduced-Guilt Guacamole. “Reduced-guilt” because consuming calories induce guilt, and guacamole has a lot of them. Ergo, eating this guacamole means I don’t have to feel as bad about myself. Hooray!
Except, wait – doesn’t everything have calories? Even my bag of carrot shreds? And I have to eat calories to live… but eating calories induce guilt… and, oh no, I’m never going to win ever am I? Sure, I can reduce guilt – but never eliminate it. Never escape the inherent guilt of calories. Never escape the vicious cycle of consumption and loss until, at last, death claims me. And there I am again, down in the bogs of depression.
Thanks a lot Trader Joe’s.
Assuming you made it this far in this post, or have a healthier sense of self-worth than I do, you’re probably wondering a couple things about this guacamole. For one, you’re probably wondering if “reduced guilt” in this case is actually a synonym for “bad tasting”. Unfortunately, the answer is yes. That said, I feel we have to judge these sort of “healthy option” food products on a curve.
We all know that the healthy option isn’t going to taste as good as the real, full calorie, thing. The question is, does the healthy option hit that sweet spot of tasting good enough for how few calories it has? A little while ago we saw Trader Joe’s Fat Free Brownies undergo this test. Trader Joe’s Reduced Guilt Chunky Guacamole does a little better, not because it tastes all that good, but because it’s a really damn healthy option. Each 1 oz serving of this guacamole contains only 30 calories and 2 grams of fat. That’s 40% fewer calories, and 50% less fat than Trader Joe’s Avacado’s Number Guacamole.
With half the calories, does that mean it only tastes half as good? Yes, actually – that’s a pretty good description of this stuff. This low fat version of guacamole definitely lacks the full-bodied flavor and punch of a regular guac.
When you take a dip of it, it starts to taste good but then stops about half way, leaving a vague sense of dissatisfaction. On the other hand, it manages to match the creaminess of regular guac and is just as filling to snack on. That’s not bad for a diet food, where managing to come out even is practically a win.
To put it another way, for a low calorie dip this stuff is pretty good, but for guacamole it doesn’t really pass snuff. A big part of that is because you’re only getting about half as much avocado as usual in your guacamole. The rest is made up for by non-fat greek yogurt. I can only imagine that this non-traditional ingredient is the main reason this guacamole doesn’t get the traditional “Trader Jose’s” appellation.
Part of me wants to praise Trader Joe’s for going out there and making a healthy guacamole alternative. However, I can’t help but think it’s all rather pointless. After all, guacamole’s only really good with chips – and there’s nothing remotely diet friendly about a bunch of tortilla chips. Yes, I suppose you could eat this with some celery sticks or such, but in that case wouldn’t you be much better off with some low-fat ranch dressing instead? Even Trader Joe’s Veggie Chip Potato Snacks and crunchy lentil curls aren’t quite so healthy enough that the diet conscious could feel free to go out and eat a big handful.
In the end, I guess Trader Joe’s is true to their word – you get a guacamole that reduces your guilt, but doesn’t absolve it.
Would I Recommend It: Not really. It’s fine for a healthy dip, but there aren’t a lot of healthy ways to enjoy it.
Would I Buy It Again: No, I think I’ll stick to the real stuff.
Final Synopsis: A low calorie guacamole with half the calories and about half the taste.
I’ve heaped some pretty high praise on the names of a few Trader Joe’s products before – but as of this moment those items are dead to me. There’s only room in my heart for one truly amazingly named product and the throne now belongs to Trader Jose’s Avocado’s Number Guacamole. Truly, I can’t imagine it will ever be deposed.
Avacado’s Number Guacamole is awesome for many reasons.
- One, it’s guacamole and guacamole is amazing.
- Two, the name is a play on the esoteric mathematical measurement “Avagadro’s Number”, better known to most as the number of atoms in one gram-molecule of hydrogen and commonly jotted down by housewives, accountants, etc as 6.0221413e+23 .
- Three, this guacamole has five avocados in it. That’s a lot of avocados!
- Fourth and finally (and best) there is a picture of good ol’ bug-eyed, limp-haired, shyster-looking Amedeo Avagadro himself making the dry proclamation: “Let’s party. ‘Arriba.’ ”
Before we get to the guacamole itself, which is quite tasty, we’ve got to spend a few minutes just looking at what the hell is going on here. First, lets just try and wrap our brains around the international gumbo we’re knee deep in here. The guacamole is a Trader Jose’s product, being a traditionally Mexican food of course, featuring the picture of, and named after, an Italian who doesn’t actually have anything to do with Avagadro’s number other than the fact that a Frenchman decided to name his discovery after him in 1909. So that’s one thing.
Yes, despite the slick looks of Mr. Avagadro, he’s only loosely connected with Avagadro’s number. The number in question, the above mentioned 60221413e+23, is one of the cornerstones of modern chemistry and physics – the number of atoms in a conventional unit of measurement called the mole.
The mole, and by extension the number, is essentially a way for us to talk about infinitesimally small and rather fidgety atoms on a reasonable and realistic scale. In 1909 a future noble prize winner and current Frenchman named Jean Baptiste Perrin coined the term to describe his work, naming it in honor of the Italian Amedeo Avagadro. Our man Avagadro lived and died back in the 19th century and amused himself by calculating the volume of gasses, thereby laying the groundwork that lead up to Perrin’s discovery, but had nothing to do with the number that bears his name per se.
Two things bother me about his gucamole. First, it only has five avocados in it which, while pretty good for guacamole, is certainly less than the 602,214,130,000,000,000,000,000 avocados (AKA six hundred and two sextillion, two hundred and fourteen quintillion, one hundred and thirty quadrillion) that the name suggests will be in it. I’m willing to let this slide in this case, seeing as that making the name more truthful would require each man, woman and child on Earth to pick a few trillion avocados first, and that’s just too long to wait for guac.
Really, this guacamole is pretty good. It comes in two separate 8 oz tubs, each one individual sealed. In order to cram in as many avocados as they did, Trader Joe’s has left in the occasional big, uncut chunk. When I say big, I mean big – think potato-chip sized. This really isn’t that bad of a thing – I found that it gives you something to break up the monotony of the otherwise featureless smooth greenness, something to really shake you up and make you confront the reality of your dip.
On the other hand, I did find Trader Joe’s Avacado’s Number Guacamole a bit on the salty side. This wouldn’t present a problem if you were eating it with unsalted chips, but when combined with salted tortilla chips its just a little too salty to really enjoy.
The other thing that bothers me about this guacamole is that Trader Joe’s was willing to go out there for the whole “Avocado’s Number” thing, but just left “mole” and “guacamole” sitting on the table. This is your once chance to ever make a “mole” related guacamole pun, and you missed it TJ! All you had to do was put a hyphen in “guaca-mole” up in the title and say something like
“Don’t ask us how many avocados are in this guaca-mole, ask our friend Amedeo.” Really, really disappointing work there Joe, but otherwise fine.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, especially to physicists who like word play.
Would I Buy It Again: Yes, but I’d use unsalted chips next time.
Final Synopsis: A good guac with an excellent name.
Trader Joe’s Balela is a mildly spiced, tangy chickpea bean dip with it’s origins in the Middle East and it’s absolutely killer. I know what you’re all thinking – “A middle eastern chickpea bean dip? He means hummus right? Why doesn’t he just say hummus? Is he stupid?”
Please, reserve your harsh judgement, hasty internet commentator, for unlike hummus the chickpeas in balela are whole, not ground. That little fact, of course, makes a world of difference.
Balela is in fact a loose mixture of garbanzo and black beans tossed with tomatoes, lemon juice, onion, garlic, parsley and a hint of mint, all served in a tiny, hummus size tub. This makes it a dip, bean salad or side dish, depending on your need.
I set into my little dish of balela with a collection of tortilla and pita chips, and simply could not stop eating it. It has that same tongue pleasing tingle and pleasant mealiness of hummus, while avoiding the overwhelming richness that hummus brings. While the tastes aren’t exactly analogous, they’re close enough that you can think of balela as “hummus light” – a much less dense take on the classic dish. The absence of tahini and presence of mint and parsley very much help further this difference between the two.
The only real mark against this dish is the small size. Little eight ounce tubs are plenty for hummus, but only holds a handful of whole beans. I ate this thing up in about six bites which, though good, was a bit fast for $3.00. It’s not terrible for an individual, but you’d have to buy about 10 of these tubs to cater to even a small get together.
Normally at this point I like to launch into the history and cultural relevance of the food I’m reviewing, but there is a shocking dearth of information about balela online. Numerous blogs all mention the dish, but only in reference to having seen it at Trader Joe’s, and the lone wikipedia article on balela is for 1950’s Portuguese soccer coach Manuel Balela. This suggests that TJ’s is delving further and deeper into esoteric foreign cuisines than I had previously dreamed, or that they’re just making up their own dishes now. I’m not sure which of these options impresses more.
Nevertheless my curiosity has been piqued. I’ve sent several communiques out to Trader Joe’s seeking answers and will update this post with the answers I uncover. In the meanwhile, if any loyal readers have any insight into the history or origin of balela, please post in the comments.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, to anyone who enjoys hummus, chickpeas or dip in general.
Would I Buy It Again: Yes, even if I wish there was packed in per package.
Final Synopsis: A deliciously tangy and savory bean dip/salad/side dish.
Onion dip, one of mankind’s most favorite dips. With the exciting arrival of Trader Joe’s Onion Dip Mix, they have now fulfilled the requirement that all supermarkets sell some type of powdered onion dip mix. I picked this up because it was new, and that’s always cool, and because onion dip is one of the most ordinary things you’re ever going to encounter in your life. Powdered onion dip mixes seldom, if ever, vary – presumably it’s all made in the same enormous mixing plant in New Jersey somewhere and then packaged with different labels. Trader Joe’s treads so far from the beaten path, is so devoted to bringing us strange and mysterious things, that it seemed weirdly incongruous that they’d be offering something as mundane and prosaic as onion dip. Surely they’ve got something sneaky planned with their onion dip, some uniquely Trader Joe’s twist hidden in this little orange packet.
Sadly, this is not the case. Trader Joe’s Onion Dip is practically indistinguishable from any other powered onion dip you might have ever had. It’s not a bad onion dip, it’s just a very ordinary onion dip. The sort of onion dip that makes you go, “Yup, here’s some onion dip.” So, in summary – if you are looking for a cheap ($0.99) onion dip mix on par with Knorr or Lipton, here you go.
The deeper, and to me more interesting, question is why do we eat onion dip at all. It’s tasty and I’m glad we do, but who was the first enterprising soul who thought “Know what this sour cream needs? A really strong onion flavor.” That’s really weird, wouldn’t you say? These are not two ingredients that naturally occur near each other in the wild Of course, I’m not Northern European either. Various recipes involving sour cream and onions were floating around the Old Country long before we adapted it into a party appetizer in the states. That transformation took place in the mid-
As it happens, the first onion dip didn’t come about until 1954, and owes its thanks entirely to the wondrous Modern Age. The era of convenience that exploded in America after WWII showed itself nowhere more clearly than through changes in the kitchen. Take the sudden rise of powdered soup, for instance. The idea of dehydrating soup for ease of use is a surprisingly old one. Lewis and Clark packed a great quantity of a commercially produced “pocket soup” with them on their expedition. The very first mentions of such a product can be traced back to as far as England, in the year 1681. These first powdered soups however, were more akin to bouillon cubes, hard lumps to be dissolved over time. These were eventually refined into powdered mixes that could easily be added to water by the busy housewives of the 1940’s and 50’s. It was one of these women, now as forgotten to time as the honorable Governor Ding, who first grabbed a packet of Lipton’s Onion Soup Mix and added it to a bowl of sour cream. The result was a hit, and quickly co-opted by the Lipton company who as early as 1958 started printing it on every packet of onion soup mix they sold.
That, pretty much, is everything you need to know about the history of onion dip. What will the future hold for onion dip? We must wait and see. In the meantime, the next time you need to cater a party on the cheap, or prep a snack for the football game, you can give this dip a whirl
Would I Recommend It: Eh. It’s as good as any other brand.
Would I Buy It Again: Sure, if I’m having people over or something.
Final Synopsis: A competent onion dip mix with no surprises.