Making due on an overdue promise I made when reviewing TJ’s excellent Pizza Veggie Burgers, today I decided to try out Trader Joe’s Vegetable Masala Burger. What I got was a tasty bit of Indian cooking in a strange new form.
These two burgers, pizza and masala, are closely linked despite their completely different tastes. Obvisously they are both veggies burgers, but more than that they are veggies burgers that refuse to conform to the standard veggie burger model. Like Trader Joe’s Pizza Veggie Burger before it, the Vegetable Masala Burger has dared to ask the question, what if a veggie burger didn’t try to taste like a hamburger at all? It’s an ingenious solution that sidesteps the pitfall of trying to ape in greens what meat already is. You’re never going to out burger a burger with condensed tofu, the only way to win is to not play the game in the first place.
This is the highest form of vegetarianism, the food item that’s not a “meatless” version of something else, not a substitute or alternative to the mainstream, but a unique and delicious meal in its own right. You’re not giving something up to eat this burger, you’re getting something new.
Before we get into what I think was strange about the burger, I’d better give you a run down of how it tastes. Masala simply means “a mixture of spices” and the term is used throughout south east Asia. The masala Trader Joe’s uses here is mysteriously only described as “spices” on the ingredient label, but from the taste of it all the usual suspects are here. Tumeric, cardamom and cumin all mingle with the hearty mixture of veggies, which very visibly includes potatoes, carrots, green beans and bell peppers. The resultant patty is dense, and redolent of spices when lightly toasted on the stove. It both looks and tastes like a hearty vegetable soup without the soup. In particular, the veggies are all soft and toothsome, a pleasure to eat even if the patty tends to disintegrate too easily while you eat it. As for the spices, they’re strong enough that they give the burger a warm and authentic flavor, but mild enough that you might consider dressing them up with a condiment – be it ketchup or chutney. Another selling point, and relief to veterans of the veggie burger world, the masala burgers don’t include soy of any kind, relying instead on breadcrumbs to bind the veggie mix together.
What’s strange to me is that they market these as burgers at all. Where Trader Joe’s pizza burger tried to at least give you the semblance and feel of a burger, the masala burger goes complete off the beaten path. From taste to texture, there’s nothing particularly “burger-y” about these burgers beyond the fact that they’re puck shaped. It’s even stranger when you regard the huge bits of potato and other vegetables roughly shouldering each other right up there at the surface. The veggie pizza burger sort of managed to look like a burger from a distance. With such large and vulgar vegetable chunks, these masala burgers wouldn’t fool a near-sighted sloth.
It almost seems unnatural that Trader Joe’s has forced the vegetables into this shape at all. The way the whole thing comes apart as soon as you stick a fork in them makes you wonder exactly who we’re fooling by going through the trouble of corralling them into a burger shape in the first place. They might more accurately be called Trader Joe’s Cooked Indian Veggies That We Packed Into A Cylindrical Shape, although I suspect that may not have gotten past the Marketing department. Trader Joe’s may have hung onto the name, but make no mistake – these burgers defy the genre in every other way.
Would I Recommend Them: Yes, to vegetarians and carnivores alike.
Would I Buy Them Again: Probably not, honestly. I’ll eat burgers for my burgers and enjoy my Indian food on a plate.
Final Synopsis: A genuinely tasty veggie burger that defies the genre.
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.