We continue our look at Trader Joe’s frozen Chinese-insipired food with Trader Joe’s Chicken Gyoza Pot Stickers. Unlike the Chicken Chow Mein from the other day, I like these gyoza just fine. In fact, I have a nearly bottomless stomach for a good gyoza, and Trader Joe’s certainly manages to deliver. I crammed hundreds of these savory dumplings into my face in Japan, and I’ll cram hundreds more if given the chance. Where the chow mein clearly lacked any sort of passion in it’s execution, these gyoza were made by a true believer. Despite coming to you frozen, these little dumplings are nearly as good as the real thing and, even better, seem to cook up perfectly every time.
There’s something wonderful that happens to mince meat and vegetables when they’re put inside the thin, crimped skin of a gyoza dumpling. Trader Joe’s combination of rich and flavorful chicken with minced vegetables combines brilliantly with the smooth, almost creamy texture of the tender skin. Whether pan fried or steamed, the gyoza seal in the flavors, keeping the insides moist and tender.
The name gyoza is directly taken from the Japanese, but that name is as meaningless to them as it is to us. The Japanese took both the name and idea from Northern China where gyoza go by the name giaozi or jioazi. Their true origin is obscured by the hazy reaches of history, but seems to owe their creation to Zhang Zhongjing – a legendary figure in Chinese history and the most prominent physician of the year 200 AD – as some sort of medical treatment.
The name Mr. Zhang bestowed upon his creation, jiaozi, translates literally “tender ears”. This is not, as you might expect, because of the lumpy, oblong shape of gyoza makes them look a somewhat ear-like. Instead, historic record suggests they were used to treat frostbitten ears. Whether this means that they were supposed to be fed to a person with frostbitten ears as a sort of medicine, or strapped directly to the head in order to warm the damaged extremities is unknown, as Zhang’s original texts were lost during the ravages of the Three Kingdoms period.
Medical use aside, the other big gyoza question is – what’s the difference between these things and Trader Joe’s equally delicious wantons?
While outwardly similar, the wanton is usually rounder than the gyoza, with a somewhat thinner skin and more heavily seasoned filling. When steamed, the differences between gyoza and wantons are more academic than anything – it’s when you pan-fry your gyoza that the differences really show up. A good pan-fried gyoza turns toasty brown on one-side while steaming up on the other. The result is a spectrum of textures, from crispy to soft, to add another dimension to the meaty filling.
Of course, no good potsticker would be complete without a killer dipping sauce. A simple mixture of soy sauce and vinegar (I like a 1:2 ration) elevates this humble dumpling to surprisingly levels of flavor and melt in your mouth pleasure. Ideally, you should use a mild rice vinegar, but any vinegar will work.
It’s a winning combination in my book, and a flawless execution of a delicious and versatile food that can be eaten as a side dish or main course. Trader Joe’s should be proud – they’ve done the gyoza proud.
Would I Recommend It: Yes – they’re perfect for entrees or sides.
Would I Buy It Again: I’m hooked.
Final Synopsis: Authentic tasting gyoza that cook up fantastically.
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.
Trader Joe’s you simply never cease to amaze me. Although we may fight from time to time, such as when you mix kale and soybeans, you never fail to bounce right back and deliver something both shockingly clever or shockingly tasty. In this case, Trader Joe’s 12 Mushroom Mochi Pot Sticker Dumplings is both.
What Trader Joe’s has done here is something unprecedented, bold and iconoclastic. They’ve taken an ordinary mushroom dumpling, a classic of Chinese cuisine, and remade it with a touch of a Japanese style. Chinese dumplings, classic potstickers, are traditionally made with thin, translucent wrappings made of flour and water. Trader Joe’s has kept the interior stuffing, but replaced the exterior wrapping with the marvelously soft, chewy and malleable mochi.
For those of you know don’t know, and I hope that is very few of you, mochi is a type of dough made by pulverizing cooked rice over and over until, taffy like, it melds into a sticky, chewy, gooey blob. It’s a food that’s long been an integral part of Japanese cuisine – sometimes eaten by itself, sometimes as the delicious delivery system for a lump of sweet bean paste, sometimes (and most commonly in the States) as the elastic casing for a ball of ice cream.
What Trader Joe’s has ingeniously done is to divorce the mochi of it’s sweet innards and replace them with a savory mushroom filling. The result is a dumpling unlike any you’ve ever tasted. In fact, the pairing is so unorthodox that I don’t blame TJ’s for giving them such a long and unwieldy moniker as “Mochi Potsticker Dumplings”. There’s simply no easy description for such a unique dish.
The result of this combination the best of both worlds – a lovely, chewy yielding exterior that gives way to a traditionally Chinese mushroom center, a mixture of Wood Ear and Shiitake mushrooms, carrots, bamboo shoots, and oyster sauce. The mushroom filling is loose, and relatively small in comparison with the thick mochi walls, but still full of savory flavor and entirely tender.
A quick trip to the microwave renders each little mochi dumpling wonderfully warm and soft. Sitting down and eating these little, pale orbs of pert dough is a tactile pleasure as much as a culinary one. The mochi extends and snaps with just the right viscoelastic properties – a delight of texture, taste and tensile strength.
We’ve talked before about TJ’s tendency to append weirdly specific numerals to to the front of their products, so I won’t get into it again here. I’m pretty much against it in every case, except where the number can only be expressed in scientific notation. However, these mushroom mochi are so delightful that they rise far above their mundane numbering. Simply put, if you’re looking for an elegant and intriguing Asian side, these mushroom mochi dumplings won’t disappoint.
Would I Recommend Them: Yes, to explore the intriguing recipie if nothing else.
Would I Buy Them Again: Yes, this is some of the best mochi I’ve had in years.
Final Synopsis: A hybrid Japense-Chinese dumpling that satisfies the senses.