Look, I know quinoa is enjoying something of a heyday, the likes of which has been unprecedented since the ancient grain was originally introduced as a staple of the human diet in 5,000 BC, but there are certain applications of it which are bound to make even the hippest vegetarian blink. I’ve calmly accepted quinoa in my salads, my “chicken”, and even in my sushi. But quinoa in my pesto? That’s a development that begs further inquiry.
Quinoa was originally cultivated in the Andes region of South America since the rise of civilization there. However, since it’s uptake by the incessant marketing machine in the mid 2000’s, quinoa has been trumpeted as a superfood for it’s many healthsome properties – some certified, some merely alleged – and introduced into practically any food product in need of a sales boost.
What is absolutely true is that quinoa is a gluten-free grain, and is relatively protein rich. Given that both these qualities dovetail nicely into the culinary trends of the day, its recent, widespread popularity should probably not be a surprise. It is notable however. Since 2006, the price of quinoa has tripled on the market even as crop production has nearly doubled world wide – and in 2013 no lesser body than the United Nations itself declared it the “International Year of Quinoa”. They had a logo and everything.
While the sudden rise of quinoa from obscurity to mainstay may sound unusual, it’s not alone. In fact pesto – yes the very pesto in this quinoa and pesto sauce – shares a very similar original story. Pesto may not have a pedigree that stretches back thousands of years, like quinoa, but it’s a lot older than you might think. The first bowl of pesto was found on the table of the ancient Romans who ate a paste of crushed herbs, garlic and cheese. As they conquested into northern Italy/southern France, the basil that grew there was introduced into the dish – resulting in the pesto we know and love today. And then nothing happened for two thousand years. Despite the fact that pesto took it’s fully mature form sometime before the birth of Christ, it was largely unknown out of the rustic Mediterranean regions where it sprang into existence.
Not until 1863 is the first recipe for pesto recorded, and it is not until nearly a hundred years after that, in 1946, that the first pesto recipe shows up in America. Even then, pesto continued to languish in relative obscurity until the 1980’s, when it started to be adopted into Italian cuisine on a wide scale.
So why combine these two long overlooked food items into one condiment? Why did Trader Joe’s bother to make Pesto and Quinoa?
When you try it, the first thing you’ll notice is that they might as well have called it pesto with quinoa, instead of pesto and quinoa. The point being that this is a pesto sauce, first and foremost, with the quinoa making a very meager impact on the overall dish.
Apart from the quinoa, this is a standad pesto recipe – filled with plenty of basil, oil and grated cheese. What it doesn’t have, however, is any pine nuts. In place of that crunchy nuttiness you get the squishy nuttiness of lots and lots of quinoa. This makes the pesto taste more or less like any other pesto you’ve had from a grocery store, even if it looks very very different. There’s so much quinoa in this pesto that it’s far and away the first ingredient. When you unscrew the lid you’ll see a load of quinoa, sprouts and all, staring back at you. If you can get over the somewhat unsettlingly different appreance, you’ll find that this pesto works just like the regular stuff – you can add it easily to pasta, chicken, fish or salads for that big sloppy kiss of savory basil. Just don’t expect it to spread quite like regular pesto. The quinoa makes it much lumpier than a normal pesto, and requires a little extra finesse on the part of the eater.
While that’s all well and good, it does make you wonder why Trader Joe’s bothered to make this stuff at all. There isn’t any real difference in the calorie or fat content between this and ordinary pesto. While I enjoyed it on a variety of meals, I didn’t enjoy it any more than I would have any other pesto. And with the slightly unappealing look and unweildly nature of the quinoa, there really isn’t any need to get it again. I’m glad TJ’s discovered a tasty Peruvian pesto, I’m just not so sure why they wanted to pas it along to all of us.
Would I Recommend It: No, I don’t think so.
Would I Buy It Again: Nope, no need.
Final Synopsis: Pesto with a bunch of quinoa in it tastes just like pesto without quinoa in it. So why bother?
Hmmm. Well, this is probably proof that the top brass at Trader Joe’s are devoted followers of this blog. No sooner do I suggest that TJ come up with a few more variations on their new Toasted Coconut Pancale Mix then does this appear on the shelf – Trader Joe’s Gingerbread Pancake Mix. It’s arrived just in time for the holiday festivities, so let’s dive in!
In my Toasted Coconut Pancake Mix review, I pointed out that while the coconut bits are pretty good, the real winner was the incredibly easy to make pancake mix itself. Trader Joe’s has brought to market a totally self-contained pancake kit that incorporates powdered eggs and powdered milk into the mix itself. All you need to supply is the water – either a little to end up with big puffy flapjacks, or a lot to end up with thin, dense crepes. This time around TJ’s ditched the coconut, and whipped up something much more in tune with the time of year – a gingerbread infused mix with crystallized ginger bits tossed right in.
While this sounds like it should be a grand slam, the pancake mix suffers from the unique problem of not being gingery enough, and being too gingery at the same time.
There are really two types of ginger in this pancake mix. The first is the ginger present in the gingerbread-like pancake batter itself. This is ginger doing the classic gingerbread thing, providing a pleasant aromatic lift to the rest of the dough and contributing just a hint of ginger taste. I was actually a little disappointed by how mild the ginger taste was in the pancake batter. Given the premise of “gingerbread pancakes”, I had assumed we’d be getting something akin to gingerbread cookies, just in a fluffier form. That’s not actually the case – this pancake mix is more gingerbread-inspired then gingerbread-infused. It tastes somewhat of gingerbread, but not so much that you would mistake it for a cookie in a blind taste test. While that’s a little disappointing to me personally, it’s by no means a deal breaker. The molasses, brown sugar and powdered ginger that do go in give it at least a hint of that warm and lovely taste of gingerbread, while retaining the supple mildness of the good ol’ fashioned pancake.
However, there is another issue. Possibly in order to compensate for the only mildly gingery batter, Trader Joe’s mixes in a heaping scoop of crystallized ginger bits. Not unlike it’s cousin Trader Joe’s Crispy Coconut Pancakes, the ginger bits are numerous, and wind up in each bite. The problem is that bits of crystallized ginger just don’t taste that great in pancakes. There are a couple issues with it – the abrupt combination of textures, the fact that the heavy bits are prone to burn on the griddle – but the biggest issue is that ginger isn’t really an easy spice to use.
Although it’s commonly found in sweets in the form of gingerbread cookies, ginger is
actually better suited for savory dishes, as in Indian and Thai cuisine – not sweet ones. Gingerbread only really works because the ginger is spread out through a good deal of sugar and thick batter. The crystallized ginger lumps in this pancake mix don’t taste like gingerbread at all – they just take like intense bits of ginger. These little gingery bursts don’t go particularly well with maple syrup and butter – instead they sort of throw the flavor off by hitting you with an abrupt, strong, clashing taste. And I say this as a crystallized ginger fan! For years I kept a little box of crystalized ginger in my desk drawer to snack on for a little mid-afternoon pick-me-up. I only stopped when it became clear that fusing my molars together with sugar-caked, sweet glue was not beneficial to healthy tooth enamel.
In the end, what you’re left with is a pretty tasty gingerbread(ish) pancake mix, with a bunch of intense ginger mixed in. The result is something that tastes less like a holiday treat and more like something from an Asian Fusion brunch special. It’s not terrible – but it is very striking. While it’s certainly interesting to try, if you’re looking for something to delight the kids with on Xmas morning this may not be the way to go.
Trader Joe, if you are taking suggestions from me now, keep the pancake mix but don’t stop trying out new flavors.
Would I Recommend It: Not really. Ginger pancakes are interesting, but not incredible.
Would I Buy It Again: I’ll probably go back to the toasted coconut pancakes.
Final Synopsis: Nice gingerbready pancakes loaded up with too much ginger.
I’ve been going around eating every type of gyoza Trader Joe’s has to offer, but only now am I finally sitting down with their Gyoza Dipping Sauce. Why the delay, you ask? Because I’m stupid. Thanks for pointing that out – now I feel terrible.
What is there to say about a simple gyoza dipping sauce? We’ll, for one, it’s not what you’d expect. A traditional gyoza dipping sauce, the type commonly used in China and Japan, is essentially a simple mixture of rice vinegar and soy sauce, occasionally touched with a bit of chili pepper. If you happen to have it laying around, it takes about two seconds to make up for yourself and costs almost nothing.
Trader Ming’s gyoza dipping sauce keeps the soy sauce and rice vinegar, but takes it in a different direction by adding load of additional spices – include sugar (in the form of “evaporated cane juice”), ginger, garlic, sesame seeds and cilantro. The result is a much thicker sauce, where the soy sauce and vinegar are pushed into the background by the strong flavors of the other spices. The result is something much more like what you’d get after mixing up a bunch of sauces at a Mongolian BBQ place than a traditional gyoza sauce. The cilantro, in particular, is an intriguing addition. We’re not talking about just a little bit of cilantro here either. Pick up the bottle and you’ll actually see the whole flakes of cilantro floating around ready to make you go “Wow, that really tastes like cilantro.”
None of this is unwarranted in Chinese cooking – cilantro, ginger and garlic all have important places in the pantheon of Asian cuisine – but it does make for a strong tasting, and somewhat unusual dipping sauce. I actually prefer the simpler vinegar/soy sauce concoction to this as the ginger and cilantro in particular really come to the fore of the sauce, and linger on the tongue long after. This, combined with the thickness of the sauce, threaten to overwhelm the taste of your pot stickers if used in more than very small quantities.
Of course, you’re not limited to using this on dumpling, if you don’t want. TJ also suggests trying it with egg rolls or, vaguely, “any Asian food”. While I’m not sure I would go that far, it certainly might work on salads, or with any number of Asian fusion dishes – banh mi, or Korean style tacos, perhaps.
Overall, however, this one feels like a miss for Trader Joe’s. Regular gyoza dipping sauce is simple and tasty by itself that TJ would have to offer something pretty special to lure me into making this a regular purchase. The sauce they delivered certainly has an unique taste – but not necessarily a superior one.
Would I Recommend It: Not really, unless you have some Asian-Mexican fusion recipes in mind.
Would I Buy It Again: No – I’ll stick to mixing soy sauce and rice vinegar, thanks.
Final Synopsis: A curiously thick and cilantro heavy dipping sauce
Back when I reviewed Trader Joe’s South African Smoke Seasoning I was delighted to discover it was one of Trader Joe’s hidden gems. Easy to overlook on shelves full of peppercorn grinders and rock salt, this South African style seasoning is imbued with a whole different dimension of flavor – the savory, rich taste of smoked meat.
When used on hamburger, steak, chicken, or anything you might like to barbecue, it’s a killer seasoning that brings to the fore the richer, meatier flavors hidden in any meat – a little magic touch of South African umami.
Of course Trader Joe’s would be Trader Joe’s if they could just leave it there. Which has lead, apparenlty, to Trader Joe’s throwing this seasoning designed for meat onto potato chips with the new Trader Joe’s Potato Chips with South African Style Seasoning.
It’s an innovation that could go either way. On the one hand, we live in an age of out-of-control potato chip creativity. Bold, daring and, some might say, insane flavors of potato chips are not just possible to find, but aggressively marketed from supermarket shelves. 10 years ago about the most “out there” chip you could find was jalapeno. Nowadays you can dabble in the sorts of epicurean excess that would have made Nero take note. Chicken & waffle flavored potato chips, mac & cheese, wasabi ginger, balsamic vinegar & rosemary, – even cappuccino, by god, cappuccino! It’s an age of snack madness, and one that Trader Joe’s is clearly unafraid to get in on. Already they’ve weighed in on with their non-standarad Beurre Meuniere Popcorn. Throwing a meat seasoning onto potato chips is almost tame by comparison.
So we can’t doubt the boldness of Trader Joe’s resolve or vision – the question is, does this seasoning actually go well on potato chips. The answer, sadly, is no.
The same qualities that make the South African Smoke Seasoning so savory on meat work against it here – it’s simply too salty and strong tasting for the simple potato chips. Divorced of a meat base, the seasoning has nothing to work off of. The result is sort of like throwing a handful of the seasoning directly into your mouth. It’s not that the taste of the seasoning is bad, it’s simply overpowering. When used on a grilled steak or hamburger, the smoke seasoning simply blends in to the complex profile of the flavors at hand. Here, on its own, it has the very strong taste of bratwurst, or as one taste tester put it, “burnt hot dog”.
How much you’re going to like these chips, then, depends on how much you like that heavy, bratwurst taste, without getting the juicy bratwurst bite. This wouldn’t be as much of a dealer breaker if it wasn’t for the strength of the taste. Trader Joe’s isn’t mincing around here – each chip is blasted with a full on shot of seasoning that is close to overwhelming. These chips are best not eaten by the handful, but slowly, one by one, or not at all.
For me the intensity of the flavor simply didn’t work together very well. Between the serious saltiness, and the heavy seasoning these chips tended to overshadow whatever I was eating them with. When your potato chips taste more like hot dogs than the hot dogs themselves, it’s generally not a good thing.
The chips may not work very well as chips because of the seasoning, but what if they were the seasoning. That barely coherent thought is what lead me to cook up the recipe below – country fried steak, with crushed potato chips instead of breading.
Trader Joe’s South African Style Seasoning Potato Chip-Fried Steak
- 2 steaks, about 1/2″ thick
- 1 cup flour (any sort, I don’t care)
- 1 cup pulverized Trader Joe’s African Style Seasoning Potato Chips
- 2 or 3 eggs, beaten
- About a 1/4 cup vegetable oil
- Maybe a delicious gravy?
- Pulverize the hell out of your chips. You can do this with a food processor, or by putting them in a baggy and smashing the hell out of them. (This is the most fun part of the recipe.)
- Spread the flour around in one dish, and the potato chip dust in another dish.
- Have the eggs ready in another dish or shallow bowl.
- Dredge the meat on both sides in the flour. (This is the third most fun part of the recipe)
- Dredge the meat in the potato chips dust, followed by the egg, and finally in the potato chips again. (This is the second most fun part of the recipe.)
- Repeat these steps with all the meat.
- Place enough of the vegetable oil to cover the bottom of a skillet and set over medium-high heat. Once the oil begins to shimmer, carefully add the meat.
- Cook each piece on both sides until golden brown, about 4 minutes per side.
- Serve the steaks (with some of the delicious gravy?)
Notes: This recipe delivers a crunchier steak than you might otherwise get, and the African Smoke Seasoning lends it’s helping hand, giving it a robust, BBQ sort of taste.
Turning chips into the seasoning instead of just adding the seasoning directly might be considered taking the long way around, and that’s a fair criticism, but dammit we live in the world of the Mini Waffle Stick Maker and Segway. If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing in an unnecessarily, silly way.
A delicious gravy is bound to help these steaks out, but that’s beyond the purview of this post.
Would I Recommend It: Not unless you usually feel your brautwurts aren’t brautwursty enough.
Would I Buy Them Again: I don’t think so.
Final Synopsis: Trader Joe’s excellent south african style seasoning should stick with meat instead of potatoes.
Most of the time Trader Joe’s manages to make their frozen food look quite delectable on the bag. For some reason, they just couldn’t manage it with their chicken chow mein. From the barren, spike-filled background on which it sits, to the uninspired “here it is” presentation of the dish, the whole picture wouldn’t look out of place inelegantly thumb tacked to the wall of that Chinese food place you never go in.
That should always be your first tip off. If the small army of marketers behind the promo picture, armed with the latest in unscrupulous food trickery and photoshop, can’t make it look good, it’s probably not very good.
From the get go you know it’s not going to be pretty, so the question really is, What do you expect from a frozen chicken chow mein? There’s plenty of good, fresh cooked chow mein out there, but this chicken chow mein isn’t that, and it never will be. This is simply a bag of frozen noodles and vegetables that you can cook up in about 7 minutes.
While there’s nothing amazing or exemplary about this chow mein, there’s nothing bad about it either. It’s there, you’re not going to do any flips over it, but it’ll get the job done – which in this case is nourishing your meaty bod.
There are no special tricks here, it looks like a pound of frozen chicken, vegetables and noodles and that’s what you get. The frozen broccoli, julienned carrots, onions, and strips of red pepper taste just like reheated frozen vegetables always taste – somewhat limp, somewhat muted. The same applies to the chicken, which is entirely ordinary cubes of white chicken breast touched up with some salt. All told they are entirely edible and perfectly acceptable for a no frill Tuesday night, but not something that is going to light up your evening.
The noodles are a cut above what you’d expect to get from a cup of ramen, but not by too much. Like the rest of the meal, they are just good enough to pass mustard without excelling.
A frozen chicken chow mein is meant to be a quick and easy meal, and that’s what Trader Joe’s delivers. Unlike some of their other, higher quality dishes like Trader Joe’s Kung Pao Chicken none of the ingredients are separated out for individual cooking. This is a bag you rip open and dump in the pan. As far as that goes, it’s good, but it never aspires to anything above that station.
And that’s precisely the problem. Trader Joe’s has a lot of excellent frozen dinners to offer, even in the “lonely bachelor food” category. Along with the aforementioned Kungo Pao Chicken, there’s Thai Sai Tung Curry, Hake en papillote or Pizza Veggie Burgers. The list goes on really. If you’re really hurting for chow mein, make your own or just order in. Otherwise, there are plenty of other options out there for your last minute dinner needs.
Would I Recommend It: Apathetically, perhaps.
Would I Buy It Again: No, I think I’ll stay a Kung Pao man.
Final Synopsis: It’s good for a frozen chow mein, so in other words, “meh”.
Trader Joe’s Seriously Stuffed Peppers struck me as a particularly intriguing novelty when I stumbled on them the other day. Not only do they sound like something your industrious grandmother might prepare for Christmas dinner, but they look exactly like that too. Each jar is tiny and cute, topped with a bit of homely parchment rubber-banded around the lid. Inside the jar a dozen or so cherry peppers are packed to bursting with a whole olive, some garlic, and a caper or two. That seemed like it just might be delicious, so I picked it up.
What I wasn’t ready for was all the oil! Not unlike the dolmas I bought a while back, these tasty, European appetizers are somewhat ruined by the enormous amount of oil they’re packed in.
First the good stuff. These stuffed peppers are pretty dang tasty. Based on the smell alone, I was prepared for an intense blast of pickled flavor, or a blazing hot burst of heat. The reality is nothing of the sort – instead they’re mild, slightly bitter, slightly nutty, with a flavorful, zesty tail.
The bitterness comes from the cherry peppers, which don’t bring any heat, but only a mild taste and toothsome texture, with just a hint of bitterness that suggests they’ve been cooked slightly too long.
Inside of these guys are the capers, olives and garlic. All three perform exactly how you’d expect – the olives and capers bring their salty, pungent taste and the garlic sneaks up behind you the moment you swallow to put a little bit of fire on the tongue. The result is very edible. Overall the stuffed peppers are much more mild than olives or capers are on their own, much more flavorful than garlic, and much more complex and interesting than simple cherry peppers. All together, they make for a nice little antipasta – perfect for throwing on the side of some pasta or lamb.
Almost perfect, I should say.
As nice as they are, I have a serious problem with how oily these peppers are. What I thought was a pickle brine at first glace, turns out to be sunflower oil – thick and viscous, with a slightly nutty taste and a smell that starts fills the room as soon as you open the jar. We are talking about a heavy, heavy oil here, and it coats the peppers in a permanent glaze. Drip, dab or wipe a pepper all you want, and it will still glisten with a fine oily sheen. I’m not kidding – my fingers are slipping all over the keyboard as I write this. My girlfriend as a jar of oil she uses on her air, a mixture of coconut oil, argan oil, and macadamia oil, that is less oily than the oil in this jar.
Evidence of the oil’s impact is visible in the nutrition facts – each 4 pepper serving contains only 60 calories, but 40 of those calories are from fat. That’s a huge amount of fat to cram into what are, otherwise, nothing but vegetables. The sunflower oil also imparts its own flavor on the peppers – imbuing the whole thing with a nuttiness that doesn’t fit in with the rest of the flavor profile.
I do like these stuffed peppers, and I’d love to snack down on them, but there really doesn’t seem to be a good way to do that. It’s tricky to fish the peppers out of the jar without them falling apart – trying to get the oil off of them without ruining their delicate construction is even harder. Leaving the oil on is always, an option, but the result is a big pool of oil on your plate or running down your finger. That’s not the end of the world, obviously, but it does limit how you eat and serve them.
Between the very pretty packaging and the beautifully stuffed peppers, this is dish looks wonderful in the jar sitting on your self. Unless you have a pressing need for antipasta, however, I’d recommend leaving them there.
Would I Recommend It: Not really – it’s okay, but not worth the hassle.
Woudl I Buy It Again: No, it’s much too oily for me.
Final Synopsis: Very nice as décor – not as good as food.
We return again to the strange shores of vegan cuisine to take a look at Trader Joe’s Meatless Meatballs. We’ve looked at a good number of vegetarian and vegan alternatives to this meaty world we live in – from soy “ice cream” to chicken-free chicken nuggets.
In general, I find that vegetarian food really shines when it’s not getting hung up on trying to be the doppleganger of meat products, as with Trader Joe’s Vegetable Masala Burgers, and just does it’s own thing. The worst sins of vegan cuisine seem to occur when somebody decides that, goddammit, yes, I need to make a turkey out of tofu. Vegetable dishes are good as vegetables, and meat dishes are good as meat – there’s no need for vegetables to be all things to all people. Nevertheless, I’m always excited to be proved wrong in novel ways, hence the acquisition of these “meat”balls.
TJ’s comes straight out and calls their meatless meatballs, “a delicious meat-free substitute for any meal” right there on the package, without even a hint of modesty. I wouldn’t go that far, but the meatballs do delivery a surprisingly rich and full, if not exactly meaty, flavor. The meatlessballs, for lack of a better word, replicate the texture and mouthfeel of a standard party meatball pretty closely. The bite of the ball is moist and a little chewy – holding together well, and breaking up much as a bit of ground beef would. Coated with a heavy sauce, or mixed into a plate of pasta you wouldn’t notice much of a difference. Taken by itself, however, the meatlessball tastes, and more importantly, smells very dissimilar.
A good job was done to season the meatlessballs in such a way that they are roughly approximate to a normal meatball, but there’s no hiding the sort of soybean-y aftertaste when eaten straight off the plate. There’s nothing here of the fatty, visceral taste of the meatball – instead there’s a thinner, somewhat vegetable blandness. This difference in taste is rather mild, however, which means it can be hidden very effectively under a good marinera or similar sauce. More problematic, for those seeking a true meat substitute, is the smell wich has nothing of the savory, fatty scent of a simmering meatball. Instead, it smells like what it is – a bunch of hot soy. It’s a strong enough scent that it might make you think twice about digging in.
When you pop this bag open, the first thing you should realize is that you
are getting a ton of these guys. These are cocktail meatballs, not the big honking ones you get in Trader Joe’s regular bag of frozen meatballs. The move feels like it may be a practical one, as even at their smaller size the meatless meatballs have a certain tendency to break up if played around with too much. On the plus side, they’re down right healthy compared to Trader Joe’s ordinary beef variety meatballs. Each six meatball serving has only 140 calories, 45 from fat, and 13 whopping grams of protein.
How do such meatless balls manage such a feat? Through the magic of textured soy protein, of course.
To level with you, I generally react to this sort of psuedo-meat like a horse being lead up to Frakenstein’s castle. There’s something strange and unnatural about it that makes me balk. Meat I get. It’s easy to get answers out of meat. “Hey, what’s this meatball made out of?” “A bunch of dead cow.” That’s a straight forward answer. The answers are harder with meatless meat products, because all of a sudden I’m being tricked, right from the start. Nothing is what it appears, but instead a complex masquerade of strange technical processes meant to fool me into thinking I’m eating meat. That’s vaguely sinister – and such weird yet innocuous phrases as “textured soy protein” only make me nervous.
Textured soy protein or “TSP” is, in fact, kind of weird and sinister stuff. It’s basically the styrofoam of the food world, used since the 1960’s by the Archer Dale Midland company to pad out meat with filler material. It’s what happens when you heat soy bean flour to high temperatures that it melts, then is extruded from a nozzle as “a fibrous, insoluble, porous network that can soak up as much as three times its weight in liquids” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Textured_vegetable_protein). Does that sound amazing? Not really, but they tell you not to ask about how sausage is made either.
That may sound like I’m being harsh, but I’m just trying to be accurate. In terms of texture and even, to a fair degree, taste these “meat”balls really are good substitutes for real meatballs. But to say, as Trader Joe’s does, that they’re a substitute for “any recipe” isn’t one I’d stand behind. Taken as a small asset in a larger dish, in a sloppy meatball sandwich say, they work beautifully, as they would for any vegetarian just looking to get a little variety in their diet. However, in a dish where the meatballs are showcased instead of hidden behind other, stronger flavors they’re unlikely to please the table.
Would I Recommend It: Not to meat eaters, possibly to vegetarians.
Would I Buy It Again: Not I, I’ll stick to TJ’s lean turkey variety.
Final Synopsis: Fake meatballs suitable for pasta but not soup.
I really hope you’ve had sukiyaki before, but if you haven’t, here’s the breakdown. Sukiyaki is a stew like dish, made with thinly sliced beef some noodles and a selection of super Japanese vegetables including Napa cabbage, spring onion (negi), shitake mushrooms and gobo. “Gobo” translates to “burdock root” in English, but unless you’ve actually had burdock root, that probably doesn’t tell you much. Basically, gobo is a long, slender root with a taste part way between carrot and potato, generally eaten after being boiled and shredded.
These ingredients are cooked up bubbling hot in a rich soupy broth made of soy sauce, mirin, and sake. Mirin, being a much sweeter, much less alcoholic form of sake, gives the dish it’s trademark semi-sweet flavor which acts as counterpoint to the savory meatiness of the dish. In short, it’s a hard meal to get right – particularly if you’re trying to figure out a way to flash freeze it, and sell it across the nation for $6.99 a bag.
The word “sukiyaki” is Japanese for “???”. Everyone can agree that “yaki” definitely means “cooked” (as in, teriyaki, teppanyaki, yakitori, etc). It’s the “suki” part that there is no general consensus on. It’s either translated as the noun “shovel”, or as the verb “to make thin”. The verb is explained through reference to the thin slices of meat. The “shovel” claim, on the other hand, is backed up by awkwardly contorted and dubious historical scenarios, one involving a peasant who was so ashamed of his inferior kitchenware that, when a guest showed up at his hut by surprise, he decided to clean off his shovel and cook on that. I hope it’s obvious which translation I prefer to believe.
Even if you haven’t had sukiyaki before, you’ve probably heard the “Sukiyaki Song” at least once. Performed by Kyu Sakamoto, the Japanese Dean Martin, way back in the 1960’s, this happy little ditty rocketed to #1 on the billboard charts in America – a shocking fact given that there isn’t a word of English in the whole song.
Pedants and know-it-alls are quick to point out that the so-called “Sukiyaki Song” actually has nothing to do with sukiyaki at all, and is in fact a heart-rending ballad of a love lost forever saddled with a silly name by savvy American marketers. What these blowhards fail to grasp, however, is that due to the grammatical quirks of Japanese the subject of Kyu’s doleful crooning is never explicitly stated. It’s entirely possible that the love Kyu mourns is, in fact, a really good bowl of sukiyaki that he’ll never have again.
In that light, lines such as “Sadness hides in the shadow of the stars. Sadness hides in the shadow of the moon,” are all the more haunting and resonant.
So how does Trader Joe’s Sukiyaki stack up? Although TJ’s make an admirable effort, their sukiyaki just doesn’t quite cut the mustard. They make their first misstep before you even open the bag. Normally, sukiyaki is made with thick, hearty noodles like udon or chewy “jelly” noodles made of firm konyaku. Not so here – instead Trader Joe’s uses thin, flat, glass noodles made from mung beans. That may sound like a subtle difference, but the result is that the noodles are considerably downplayed in the dish, letting the veggies and meat run wild without a mild counterpart to balance out the stronger flavors.
It’s in those stronger flavors where the sukiyaki really falters. No one was more ready than I to love the hell out of this little dish, but it just doesn’t quite work. The main problem in in the sweetness. Sukiyaki should be sweet enough to intrigue the tongue, but not so sweet that your left grasping for a glass of water. Trader Joe’s Sukiyaki makes exactly this mistake, loading on the sweet mirin (and added sugar) to the point where the sweetness is the primary taste. The beef and sliced veggies certainly make an impression, they just don’t outlast the strong, sweet taste of the sauce.
That brings us to the other problem – the calorie count for this bag of sukiyaki is something to be reckoned with. Each 20 ounce bag is supposed to be broken up into 4 servings. Sadly, if you buy this dish you’ll discover that serving suggestion is a pipe dream. While the helping of meat is generous, there is hardly enough veggies and noodles for two people, let alone four. Sukiyaki is meant to be a standalone dish – or at the very least an entree. Taken at the given proportions, Trader Joe’s is delivering a side soup at best.
That’s not to say this is a bad dish – there’s a lot that Trader Joe’s does well here. The beef and veggies is good quality, and come in a separate bags for ease of defrosting and cooking. There’s a real effort to try and do the whole thing right, and if the flavor palette was reformulated a little bit this would be a killer dish. Until that happens, I’ll just have to walk along, whistling, remembering fonder sukiyakis long gone.
Would I Recommend It: It’s not bad exactly, but I don’t think I would.
Would I Buy It Again: Sadly, I wouldn’t.
Final Synopsis: A good attempt at sukiyaki that ends up too scant, and too sweet.