Tuesday, October 27, 2009
Trader Joe's Paneer Tikka Masala
I confess: I am seriously spoiled when it comes to Indian food.
Back when I lived in Georgia, I was a regular at a fantastic place called Cedars Taverna (sadly, no longer in business). Ken, the chef and owner, truly had a gift with food. His specialty was traditional Indian fare -- but sometimes, if you were lucky, he would also prepare local Southern favorites and put an Indian spin on them. Heaven on Earth just may have been his curried crab cakes.
Ken also has the distinction of being the person who made me love Indian food. I'll be honest -- the first time I went, I did so only to shut someone else up. But for the first time, after all the times I had previously had Indian food, something clicked and I was immediately hooked. And ever since the days that Ken has closed and I have moved back to California, I often find myself longing for Indian the way he made it for me.
Unfortunately, I have yet to find a local place that I really love. Most of what I have encountered around here has been neutered and domesticated Indian food, made to appeal to timid Americans who find Taco Bell too spicy. What a waste! Indian, if nothing else, has strong flavors -- not necessarily hot (though I love and chase the heat), but bold and assertive.
Well, I wanted Indian food badly this weekend, and the budget wouldn't allow going out to a restaurant. But I noticed that Trader Joe's had a couple items that looked promising...so here we are.
Tikka masala is a dish that is familiar to many non-Indians. In fact, it was likely invented by Indian immigrants living in the UK, where it has become immensely popular. It's a tomato based sauce -- usually served with chicken -- that can be spicy, but is more often mild. (Guess which one I like better?) There are many variants, but it typically has yogurt, cream, turmeric, garlic, etc.
TJ's does a pretty respectable take. I opted to have the paneer (a firm, mild cheese) version. They also offer the more common chicken version.
The tikka sauce is mild -- yes, I do like mine set to 11 in terms of heat -- but I was not expecting extreme heat in a frozen commercial product, so I cannot hold that against them. It's creamy. There's sumac (or something similar) in it. You can also taste the faintest dash of cinnamon. For ready-made microwaveable, it is truly first rate.
The paneer -- which, in this case, is cut into little tofu-esque chunks, is...well, I would rather have had more sauce instead, but they are OK. You would almost expect them to be rubbery based on their appearance, but instead they crumble in your mouth...and I mean that in the best sense possible. If I had to nail a flavor, I would say it's like a super-solid ricotta.
The spinach basmati rice is yet another example of the few times frozen ready-made food simply doesn't get much better. It's tender and moist. Just kissed enough by the spinach that it adds a slightly bitter edge, but not enough that it distracts from the buttery richness of the rice. The only part of the rice I could have skipped were the tiny cubes of carrot. They are reasonably tender, and they're not bad. They are just kind of pointless.
I really enjoyed this meal. It was flavorful, and portioned well. OK, I admit it, I liked it enough that I probably should have bought two. It wasn't hot in terms of spice; but again, I was not expecting it to be. And perhaps for those who are curious about Indian food but are wary of the heat, this mildness would be a plus.
So how good is it overall? Well, Chris said the only thing that could make this meal even better would be if it could be eaten off a naked Aishwarya Rai. But Trader Joe's apparently doesn't offer that option, so I guess he'll just have to make do with it as is.
Finally, I might also add that this product is a great value, as it is both better and less expensive than some similar items (ahem, Amy's) that are sold in many supermarkets . Simply put, this one is a winner.
Don't just take my word for it, either. Abi over at Heat Eat Review also loved it (read her review here).