So let's start with this, Trader Joe's Paneer Tikka Masala. Okay, let's take a look at it ... I see cheese, rice, sauce and spices ... that's four of my major food groups right there that are good for me in moderation. Off to a good start. No meat ... no eggs ... hey, even gluten-free (like some other fine TJ treats) ... but it does have cheese. So this is lacto-vegetarian, then, right? Well, yes, but only because paneer (that's the cheese) isn't produced with rennet, an animal-byproduct enzyme that does something or other to pretty much every other cheese in the world. Apparently those lacto-vegetarians aren't down with that (also, no gelatin is given the green light ... c'mon, no Jello?). With all that and no eggs to boot, I can imagine it being tough to follow that kind of diet.
I'm sure it'd be easier if everything tasted this good.
Contrary to the picture on the box, the tikka masala comes in a compartmentalized plastic tray with the rice on one side, the cheesy saucy chunks on the other, with some plastic film on top that you poke a couple breathing holes in before nuking for about four minutes to heat on up from its normative frozen state. When taken out and film peeled away, the sweet-'n-spicy aroma will definitely draw the attention of your white bread coworkers, like mine who stare in wonder at my French press every morning while I make my coffee. It smells delicious and intoxicating and once the fragrance hit my olfactory receptors, my immediate thought was, game on. I tackled the paneer side first. The paneer comes in little tiny cubey chunks bathing in reddish-orangish creamy tomato sauce. I scooped up a couple and took them in, and was immediately pretty happy. The cheese bits were okay, nothing too special, kind of like the lovechild of tofu and soft, mild mozzarella in both taste and texture. But the sauce ... dare I say majestic? It was a little sweet and definitely creamy (enough to make me think there might be coconut milk involved - nope), light, and has a good little kick to it, too. The turmeric really stands out to me, at least. Though not exactly the same, it reminded me of some good Thai curries I've had. It definitely tastes warm and I could feel my taste buds dancing around when I slathered them with tasty spoonful after tasty spoonful. Really, really good - I wish TJ's or someone would bottle it, and I'd be tempted to put it on just about anything. The spinach rice was decent, too, but not all that noteworthy. Except when the sauce mingled its way on over, that is.
I'm a fan of this, and judging by the beeline Sandy makes for this when perusing the freezer section, she is too. Considering the first two ingredients are tomatoes and onions (two of her least favorite foods), that speaks volumes to its overall goodness. Sandy said she has to refrain herself from picking up the tray and licking out every last bit of the sauce every time she has it for lunch. I scraped out every trace I could with my spoon and wiped some more out with my finger when no one was looking. Just so good. Not sure how it stacks up overall compared to the chicken variation of the dish, but I was pretty well pleased.
The only truly negative thing I'd say about the dish is, although the paneer isn't all that spectacular, it's good enough that I wish there were more of it. I'm guesstimating there were maybe a dozen minute chunks of it in my lunch. Sandy echoed the sentiment and said she'd be lucky if she had that many. Because of the paucity of cheesy chunks I'd say it might be slightly overpriced at $2.99 but you can certainly spend a lot more on something else and not get something quite this good for a workplace lunch.
The two of us are pretty solidly in agreement that overall, this is one pretty darn worthwhile lunchtime pick up, especially if you enjoy Indian food. That sauce .... mmm. We love it enough to both grade the whole dish a sturdy four out of five, and award it a regular spot in our work lunch rotation.
Bottom line: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons
p.s - Don't forget about our contest ... please don't let Nathan win!