Hello. My name's Nathan, and I love Trader Joe's. My wife Sonia does too. She's a great shopper, has excellent taste and knows good value when she comes across it. As many of you know, Trader Joe's is unsurpassed in the world of good-value grocery stores, so we spend a lot of our time and money there. Although the store fairly consistently delivers great taste with its own unique line of food products, there are definitely some big-hits, and unfortunately, there are some misses...

After doing a couple of internet searches for reviews of TJ's food items, Sonia discerned an apparent dearth of good, quality reviews for the store's offerings. So, at her suggestion, we decided to embark on a journey of systematically reviewing every Trader Joe's product, resulting in the blog you are about to read...

A couple of months into our Trader Joe's rating adventure, an old college friend, Russ, who unbeknownst to me had been following our TJ's blog, decided that I had been slacking in my blogging duties (which, of course, I was) so he decided to contribute his own original TJ's reviews to the blog, thus enhancing it, making it more complete and adding to it a flavor of his own. He and his wife Sandy are also avid TJ's fans and, as you will soon discover, he is an excellent writer and is nearly as clever, witty and humble as I am.

Seriously though, Russ: You go, boy!

So here it is: "What's Good at Trader Joe's?"

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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Trader Joe's Paneer Tikka Masala

So, my last review got me thinking about the whole classes of vegetarianism thing, and like any good, curious fellow in this age and time, I went straight to the infallible, omnipotent source of all knowledge readily available on the interwebs ... yup, Wikipedia (Nathan sure got our unspoken WGATJ creed right). Turns out there's a lot of denominations within vegetarianism, enough to make my head spin. There's the vegans, who are pretty simple to understand - no animal product of any type. Raw vegans take it a step further - only raw, uncooked fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, etc. Fruitarians go even more out on a limb and eat only such things that when harvested don't "harm" the plant (some of them don't even eat seeds because it "kills" future plants), but it's unclear to me if they can cook stuff or not ... maybe once it's fallen off the tree, do with it what you will? Going back towards the center, there's all the vegetarian classifications like pescetarianism, which allows for seafood, pollo-pescetarianism (seafood, poultry and white meat ... basically, Sandy's diet except the occasional burger), and so on. I kinda get all that, but then start seeing stuff like ovo vegetarianism (eggs okay, dairy not) and lacto-vegetarianism (dairy okay, eggs not), and think of all the label reading and care those following these diets must undergo to make sure they're not accidentally eating something that violates the tenets of their chosen food gospel ... I mean, I'm kinda just used to sticking whatever tastes good in my mouth and going with it. I'd like to try to pay some more attention to what I'm eating, maybe. Seems more purposeful somehow.

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!


  1. Sounds great! Just to let you know, there are both animal- and plant-based rennet so us lacto-ovo vegetarians (the most common type) can still eat many types of cheese :)

  2. Kim - Did not know that. Thanks for making my head spin even a little more :)

  3. Tried this yesterday. I really liked the paneer and the sauce, but I was not wild about the rice. I felt like the flavor interfered with the good stuff.

  4. Looks nice on the packet but would have been good if there was a photo of what it really looks like heated and ready to eat. To many times these types of meals look nothing even close like the photo on the box. But $2.99 seems cheap.
    cheers Japanese Ice Cream

  5. Another good vegetarian dish is their eggplant pasta in the frozen section. Yum!

  6. Trader Joe's used to make "Masala Simmer Sauce" and sold it in glass jars. Tasted similar to the sauce used in this- not sure if they still sell it or not. It used to be in the same aisle with the pasta sauces. :-)

    1. They still sell it. It's awesome.

  7. I bought this after your recommendation, there were only 4 pieces of chicken in the dinner, tasty but a rip off

  8. I eat this at least once a week. I never had Indian food growing up, but was recently introduced and I love it. I'll occasionally splurge for the vegetarian Indian restaurant down the street (which is amazing), but why spend $12 when the $2.99 version is almost as good?!

    P.S. The best way to eat this is to mix everything together and scoop onto a piece of Trader Joe's Garlic Naan bread. The rice is nothing special by itself, but the combo is fantastic.

  9. Lol I know what you mean. My grandparents are Hindus (vegetarians - turned omnivores once they moved to the US) and my parents are convenience cooks (perdue chicken nuggets). I try to eat mindfully (meat only once a day, mindfully sourced). It's a lot. But I'm also a bit of a gourmet so I totally get the "eat whatever tastes good" mentality! Growing up with one Indian parent I'm nervous to try these TJs products but I might someday.

  10. Fabulous!! My favorite of the frozen meals so far.

  11. This is one of my favorite trader joes products. I feel like its the closest thing you can get to the authentic stuff - any other packaged/frozen indian food from a grocery store I've tried has been really mediocre. But TJ's indian food is great. As someone else said, I recommend eating this along with a piece of their garlic naan...delicious and makes it filling enough to eat for dinner.

  12. I second Lisa's sentiments almost exactly. This is one of my fave lunches...although I usually add some extra paneer.

  13. Love the blog! Just tried this today. Definitely could use more paneer but it's absolutely delicious :)

  14. Vegetable Bird's Nest by far for me

  15. By the way - you don't need gelatin to make a jello like dessert. Any good gelling agent works. Hunt's has such snack cups made with carrageenan, for instance. And gelatin itself can have various sources- beef gelatin can be labeled kosher while pork gelatin is not. A chemist friend years ago said she felt a lot of gelatin could be synthetic today, rather than from dead animals. Never did research it to find out if she's right. But in the US, the vast majority of cheese today is made with non-animal rennet simply because it's cheaper. Domino's regular pizza cheese is actually vegetarian, although their other cheeses may or may not be depending on the supplier. Anyway - even vegans are not deprived of jello. They can either buy vegan versions or make them from packages or from scratch with several possible gelling agents.

  16. You also can avoid the label problem entirely (Wikipedia is not actually a great source of accurate info) by just saying you eat mostly vegan or vegetarian with some exceptions like fish or bacon (yes, I know of at least two baco-vegetarians...) That avoids any politics while making it clear where your personal eating limits are. In the US, though, claiming to actually be a vegetarian while eating fish will cause endless puzzlement since we really don't use the word that way in US English, regardless of Wikipedia claims. But putting it on a meal by meal basis (eating mostly vegetarian plus some fish) gets the idea across with no confusion. The whole reason for the hyphenated forms something-vegetarian is because the root word (vegetarian) actually means no animal products. So vegan is actually the default with other foods added, although in the US people will assume ovo-lacto-vegetarian if you just say vegetarian so vegan is better if you really don't eat eggs or dairy.