I may occasionally give Trader Joe’s a real tongue lashing, like I felt compelled to do the other day with their strange and terrible pseudo-salad, but only when the really deserve it, and in any case I like to try and give TJ’s the chance to settle the score. In that spirit, I went out and picked up Trader Joe’s Carrot and Cilantro Bulgur Grain Salad with Tumeric Garbanzo Beans.
As you might gather from the picture, or the long, strange name, this is another entry in Trader Joe’s new line of little grain-salads-in-a-tub, and close cousin to Trader Joe’s underwhelming Nutty Grain Salad. Surely TJ’s wouldn’t have released two, tiny, grain-based salads unless they had damn good reason to think people would actually enjoy them. They couldn’t both be as bad as the first one I tried, right?
The fact of the matter is that Trader Joe;s Carrot and Cilantro Bulgur Grain Salad is miles better than it’s counterpart in both taste and nutritional content, and I was glad I picked it up. That said, it’s every bit as twisted and insane as the Nutty Grain salad, just on a different axis.
The main thing you’ll probably notice when you pick this salad up is how it is topped with bright yellow chickpeas. Oh, great, you might think – Curry, that’s brilliant. I bet curry could taste really good on a salad like this.
Only it’s not curry, it’s just tumeric. All the other rich and exotic spices that give curry it’s magical kick – the cardamom, the cumin, the garam masala in general, aren’t present. Just musty old tumeric – wonderful for color, but dull and dusty when it comes to taste. In fact, given the overall taste of the salad the garbanzo beans are a total non-sequiter. I went into this bulgur salad expecting it to taste something like Trader Joe’s Vegetable and Country Grain Salad – one of my all-time favorite TJ’s salads, and place holder on my Best of 2013 list. Instead of the nutty and mellow tastes of that salad, or something that would work well with tumeric, we get the strong flavor of orange juice. Yes, orange juice is the primary flavoring agent in this salad and I swear to god that you can taste it in every bite. This whole salad is infused with the strong zing of not just citrus, but real oranges, real oranges and a hint tumeric.
It’s incredible. Taken back to back with the Nutty Grain salad, it feels like Trader Joe’s has started to curate a small selection of recipes broadcast to it from a parallel universe several degrees separate from our own. “Mmm-boy! Serve me another plate of cooked bulgur and a tall galss of orange juice!” demand the insect-headed denizens of that universe before scuttling off to work in their cities beneath the sea.
The other flavors you’ll experience with this salad are the slightly nutty taste of the bulgur, and the strong, lingering taste of carrots. Surprisingly, the cilantro that gets top billing in the product name is only present as a subtle background touch, emerging mid chew, then vanishing again without a trace.
All in all, this salad tastes more like an orange/carrot juice drink than anything else. In salad form, that makes for a very strange eating experience but not necessarily a bad one. Once I got used to the fact of the thing, I happily munched this salad up. There’s enough texture and chewiness to the dish that it lasts you a surprisingly long time for only eight ounces, and the orange and carrot flavor works together, if not perfectly, than well enough.
The other nice difference between this salad and the Nutty Grain salad is that it has a much more reasonable calorie count. There are only 240 calories per serving, and only a slender 10 calories from fat. There is still a considerable 54 grams load of carbs in the tub, but that’s too be expected from so much grain, and it’s ameliorated somewhat by the 9 grams of fiber in it as well.
Overall, it might be the most unusual salad I’ve ever had – even stranger than the Korean Spicy Seaweed Salad – but isn’t that what we go to Trader Joe’s for? Whether it sort of work out, like today, or misses entirely, like with the Nutty Grain salad, I have to take my hat off to Mr. Joe if for nothing more than his boldness of vision.
Would I Recommend It: Not to the populous at large. This is a unique salad with an unusual taste.
Would I Buy It Again: I don’t think so. It was okay, just not good enough to justify repeat purchases.
Final Synopsis: A small, bulgur salad flavored with orange juice.
As promised we continue Frozen Indian Food week with Trader Joe’s Channa Masala. Sure, the name might not be as hypnotically rhythmic and soothing as Aloo Chaat Kati Pouch, but this spicy, tasty, cheap and tangy chickpea dish has just as much to offer on the flavor front.
As you might guess from the above description, this dry and tangy dish comes from the dry and tangy regions of Northern India. Rajistan in the north west of Indian, and the neighboring regions, are dominated by the great Indian Thar Desert and something of the sere nature of this region has permeated the food that comes from here.
The Thar Desert (bordered to the south by the Great Rann of Kutch) is, of course, famous for having the best desert name of all time, just above Gobi and Mojave. The Thar Desert’s other claims to fame, of course, is as the setting for Rama’s attack on Lanka with his army of vanaras, when he and had to use his agneyashtra-amogha to dry up the drumakulya, leading to the creation of the Marukantara, but that may just be my opinion.
At any rate, masala, as we maybe all probably know, is the general South East Asian term for a mixture of spices, while channa, or chana, is the Hindustani word for chickpeas. That, and exactly that, is what you get in Trader Joe’s Channa Masala – a bunch of garbanzo beaans mixed into a sauce of onions, tomatoes, peppers and some usual Indian spices (namely, cumin, fenugreek, tamarind, mango powder and cilantro).
What that means is, you get a damn good side dish with a bunch of different flavors going on. The garbanzo beans cook up in a couple minutes in the microwave, and come out with just the right texture – a nice toothsome bite that is neither too hard nor too mushy. The sauce starts out with a savory, slightly charbroiled taste that gives way to a nice low burn as you eat. Where things start to get a little weird is around the edges of these flavors, where a noticeble, delicate sourness comes in. This hint of sour is the result of the mango powder and tamarind spices, and turns the whole meal into something more considerable than a simple bean side dish.
Trader Joe’s claims they make their Channa Masala from a traditional Indian recipe, and while that’s the sort of claim I usually write off immediately as marketer-speak, it really seems to be the truth in this case. This is a solid, and simple dish perfect for pairing with a more substantial entree – the Aloo Chaat, for example, would give you a complete, rather good Indian dinner in about 6 microwaveable minutes.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, these are some tasty beans.
Would I Buy It Again: Yes, this is an excellent solution for my go-go lifestyle.
Final Synopsis: A cheap and easy Indian chickpea dish.
Aloo chaat kati pouch, aloo chaat kati pouch, aloo chaat kati pouch.
With this new foray into Indian street cuisine, Trader Joe’s hasn’t only delivered another short, sharp blast of tasty and convenient, on-the-go snack food, but also a nearly hypnotic chant that will resonate pleasantly in your brain for days. Go ahead, try saying it out loud a few times. Aloo chaat kait pouch. Aloo chaat kati pouch. Pretty soothing, wouldn’t you say?
One of the charming idiosyncrasies of Trader Joe’s is that, yes, they do have down and dirty, microwaveable bachelor food, but that it’s all Indian for some reason.
I talked a little bit about the myar sack full of bbq’d Punjab Eggplant (quite tasty, by the way), and I’ll probably write about their chaan masala later this week (so, you know, buckle up your seat belts for that). Like most of Trader Joe’s other frozen Indian cuisine offerings, those items are your typical slap-it-in-the-microwave-for-3:00-and-hope-for-the-best style meal. Trader Joe’s Aloo Chaat Kati Pouch takes this level of casual cuisine to a whole new level.
The pouches are, for all intents and purposes, Trader Joe’s high-end, Indian-inspired Hot Pocket. There can be no doubt about this. When you open up the box you get two frozen dough pouches and two cardboard crisping sleeves. The resemblance is shocking. Trader Joe’s must have either spent considerable resources reverse engineering the Hot Pocket formula, or they simply poached top Hot Pocket talent from HotPock Inc. In any case, if you’re an American citizen, this product should be incredibly familiar to you. Simply pop the crisping sleeve in the microwave for three minutes, and you get out a pipping hot “pouch”.
As derivative as the packaging may appear, Trader Joe’s actually has a solid, authentically Indian grounding to spin this approach out of. Kati pouches, or as they’re more generally known, kati rolls, are a food innovation that came out of Kolkata in the 1960’s. Kati is the Bengali word for bamboo skewers. These skewers are colloquially associated with kabobs that would often be rolled up in a paratha (sort of like naan) dough wrap. The wraps caught on, and led to the rise a whole class of kati street food – essentially anything wrapped up in a nice crispy bit of soft, buttery paratha.
While TJ’s might still be open to accusations of biting on Hot Pocket’s style, it’s doing it’s own amazing thing with the taste. Aloo Chaat translates to something like “Street food style potato dish”. What that means is you get a tasty, corriander spiced mash of potatoes, chickpeas and onions, served in a snackable form. Despite the somewhat low-brow connotations of food pockets, Trader Joe’s really goes the extra mile to try and make these hot pouches tasty – including spicing the mixture with dates, shredded coconut, tamarind and even dry mango powder. The result is a slight tang of complex fruitiness that lingers on the edge of the stronger spiced potato flavor. I dare say that if it was served by itself, as a frozen side perhaps, where you would be able to dose it with condiments and seasonings as desired, it would be hard to find fault with this dish. However, constraining it in the pocket takes away something of the elegance of the dish, and limits your ability to add anything to it – forcing you to take it as is.
There’s two ways to look at this. If you’re looking for fine Indian fare, the aloo chaat is probably going to disappoint you when compared to an excellent samosa or chicken masala. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for some quick and easy street food style snacking, this aloo chaat is certainly going to satisfy your taste buds better than the competitors. Overall, it’s an intriguing take on an obscure Indian classic, and a winner in my book.
Would I Recommend It: If you’re looking for microwaveable on-the-go snacks, this is a winner.
Would I Buy It Again: I usually eat my meals sitting down, so no.
Final Synopsis: A tasty American spin on a fast and easy Indian street food.
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.