Trader Joe’s continues to deliver high-quality Indian food with their latest offering – Trader Joe’s Paneer Masala Naan. When it comes to Indian food, TJ’s always seems to get it about right – whether that be their Aloo Chaat Kati Pouches or their Uttapam, so it was a thrill to see a new and delicious Indian bread available to try.
While at first Indian food names seem to be dense and intimidating, as soon as you start picking up some key phrases they are actually pleasantly direct (much easier to parse than, say, direct Chinese translations of food, which tend to more poetically reference clouds, ears, or quasi-mythic generals) Paneer meaning cheese, Masala meaning a blend of spices, and Naan, of course, meaning bread.
Combine those three terms, as they have here, and you’re left with that tasty, chewy, oblong flat bread we all know and love, but somehow stuffed with cheese, diced onion and plenty of savory spices. “A cheese stuffed naan?” you’re no doubt, asking yourself incredulously. Yes, sit down, a cheese stuffed naan – but stuffed classy-like. This isn’t some Taco Bell-style molten “cheez” filled dough snack, it’s a scrumptious, shareable, understated addition to your classy Indian or South East Asian inspired dinner. The cheese, for one, is present only in a reserved quantity – a thin layer that effuses throughout the soft and chewy bread rather than glue it together.
In fact, apart from the appealingly moist texture the cheese lends the naan, you won’t notice it as much as you will the masala spice mix. The onion is the clearest participant, showing up well-cooked and diced so as not to sting the tongue, and it’s complemented nicely by coriander, green chili, ginger, and the other miscellaneous spices that TJ’s doesn’t bother to delineate on the label but which likely include fennel, cardamom, nutmeg, and more in small, measured quantities.
Naan is one of the most delicious forms of bread in existence, when done right, and Trader Joe’s does it right here, perfectly balancing crispiness with moist toothsomeness. You will want to make sure you pop it in your oven for long enough to ensure it is heated through and through – a good 10 – 15 minutes or so. Sure, it would be preferable if you could just microwave it, but good food is seldom microwaved.
Trader Joe’s claims they’re able to deliver on such high-quality Indian food, time after time, because they actually have their food hand-made in India itself. In this case, their naan hails from that Jewel of the West, Gujarat on the west coast of the subcontinent. You should be thrilled to hear because, one, it means you’re getting authentic hand-made Indian food in your local grocery store, but also because, two, it gives us a chance to talk about the Great Rann of Kutch!
We briefly covered the marvelous Thar Desert a while back, and those endless salt flats known as the Rann of Kutch which borders it to the south. This unique ecoregion is home to the graceful, loping nilgai, and is fed by the sinuous Luni River and I haven’t made up even one word in this whole paragraph. All of these things are real things. I would strongly argue that the Great Rann of Kutch has the single best geographic name of any location on Earth, beating out even the Forth of Firth, and Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwll-llantysiliogogogoch. And basically, folks, if that doesn’t get you in the mood to eat some naan, I’m not sure what to tell you.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, this is some good naan.
Would I Buy It Again: Yup, it’s perfect for sopping broth, grippin’ chicken or just eating by itself.
Final Synopsis: Cheese and herb stuffed naan – what’s not to like.
I liked my last taste of East Asian non-traditional savory snack pancakes so much, that I went out this week and tried another one. This time we’re talking about Trader Joe’s Four Uttapam with Coconut Chutney – a South Indian flat bread that’s not only vegan and gluten free, but also down right tasty.
I’ll admit right out that I picked up Trader Joe’s uttapam because reading the package made the language part of my brain have a little spasm. As we’ve seen time and time again, if you put a crazy enough word on your package I basically can’t stop myself from buying your product.
In this case, it turns out that uttapam (U-thap-pam, apparently) are smallish, plain pancake/pizza-like flatbreads from the south of India. Each uttapam is about the size of a bagel (a bit smaller than the Pa Jeon) and topped with a healthy scattering of diced onion, green bell pepper and some subtle cilantro. The taste is a mild, but rich with both the flavor of the vegetables and a dusting of traditional Indian spices.
These veggies are all resting on the uttapam itself, a very specifically Indian sort of bread – both doughy, spongy, and slightly sour. I put bread in “quotes” here because the dough is made from a specific mixture of mashed, fermented rice and black lentils called urad dal, which are not things you typically imagine bread as being made out of. In fact, I’m fairly certain urad dal is one of the locations Frodo and Sam had to pass through on the way to Mordor.
You might think that a bread made from rice and beans would taste wildly different from a standard wheat-based flatbread, but shockingly that isn’t the case. The spongy, soft bread base tastes just as good, as any wheat based flat bread – only due to it’s rice and lentil origin it’s miraculously gluten free.
The bread poofs up nice and soft when cooked, like a soft pillow for the minced vegetables to rest on. You can eat them like this
directly, or get fancy with some toppings. Trader Joe’s includes a couple little packets of coconut chutney to throw on top, but I’d recommend throwing them out instead. The included chutney is rather weak and lackluster, and doesn’t do much for the subtle flavors already present in the bread. Instead, I’d recommend applying your imagination and topping them with whatever seems good – be that a better chutney you have laying around or some other food entirely. I threw some fried eggs on mine one morning and discovered that uttapam beat the hell out of English Muffins. At $3.69 for a pack of four, you can afford to get a little crazy with them.
Your box of four uttapam comes frozen, and Trader Joe’s offers two suggestions for cooking them – either microwave or stove top. This is no idle consideration, because each method yields a very different final result. Microwaved uttapam (net time required: < 1 min) stay soft and pliable and more pancake-y. Stove top, on the other hand, takes about 4 or 5 minutes per uttapam, but comes off the griddle toasty crisp. Having tried both, I’d recommend the stove top without hesitation – not just because the creators of the uttapam, the Tamils, have a culture of enjoying elaborate and leisurely cooking – but also because the time on the stove really brings out the redolent smells and flavors of the dish.
Really, I have to consider myself a lucky guy – just two weeks ago I couldn’t name you a single tasty, simple, vegetarian/vegan, super-snackable, savory mini-pancake, and now I know two. I’d recommend picking up the uttapam and pa jeon at the same time, and having yourself an Asian Pancake Frolic to go along with the waffle frolics you are enjoying already. At the very least, they could serve as a decent stand in for those still feeling the pain of loss of Arabian Joe’s Spicy Spinach Pizzas.
Would I Recommend It: Yup – it’s as tasty as it is worldly.
Would I Buy It Again: I most certainly would.
Final Synopsis: Tasty south Indian flatbread perfect for gluten-eaters and gluten-free alike.
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.