Crappy or Cultured: One Man’s Journey to Eat All the Indian Food at Trader Joe’s

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By Teja Dusanapudi 

Hold on to your saris, folks! Today, Trader Joe’s is becoming “Trader Raja’s.” Starting with a meal of fish korma before heading to a savory chicken tikka masala and then finally chana masala and some whole-wheat naan, I am fully committed to either eating some good Indian food or making fun of it. 

The food itself will be rated on three main criteria:

  1. Taste: Is their idea of spice salt and pepper or half a bottle of chili powder
  2. Texture: Look, if I’m being entirely honest here, the prospect of frozen, pre-packaged Indian food seems bizarre at best.
  3. Authenticity: Is my mom going to jump out of a Toyota Corolla and shame me for eating Trader Raja’s Oriental Samosas or will they be using her secret recipe?

Picture of the goods, reasonably priced at $3.49.
Not pictured is the Trader Joe’s employee watching me take a picture of the frozen food aisle.

Fish Korma

I can say, firmly, that it looks edible. The rice is cooked; it’s Basmati style rice, long and thin, and there’s a decent amount in the black plastic that the meal comes in. The fish, on the other hand, is an oddly shaped orange triangle. As I poke at it with my spoon, chunks of the sauce hang to it. 

Setting aside a sense of mild disgust, I bite in. The fish is tender and the sauce, while bland, has a pleasant, gravy-like consistency. When eaten with rice the warm, creamy texture of the sauce coats the Basmati, and the light meat of the fish tops it off. It’s flavorful (somewhat), filling (for the most part), and tastes like home (if I lived in a grocery store aisle).

Taste: Warm and inviting, but more than a little disappointing. The gravy could use more spice, otherwise the cream can be a little overpowering.

Texture: Spot on. I was uneasy about eating fish from a cardboard box, but every aspect of the dish, from the rice to the sauce, had a perfect balance, smooth and saucy without being too heavy or rich.

Authenticity: Very authentic to food you might eat at an Indian restaurant, which itself is leagues away from actual Indian food. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a Toyota Corolla pull up in the driveway and be told to put down the food and start studying for the GRE.

Overall Rating: 3.5/5

I’d eat it again, but I wouldn’t stock my doomsday bunker with it or anything. Keep fishing, Trader Raja.

Butter Chicken

The chicken, as I pull it out of the box, is initially grey and frozen, but looks significantly more appetizing after being cooked; the meat is strident and has a nice lurid orange to it, the rich scent of butter chicken drifting through my apartment. Hey, if you know you know. 

The chicken itself cuts easily; the meat is tender, but with enough of a pull to resist the fork without being chewy. Halfway through, joining me are a friend and my roommate; they ask to pull up a chair and eat. We agree that the sauce is more soup-like in its consistency, but the meat itself is well-cooked. When eaten with the rice, the spoon is a rolling wave of the warm, savory butter sauce, anchored by the succulent chicken.

Taste:  Chicken was well flavored by the sauce, very fulfilling taste. While it could’ve probably used more spice, butter chicken usually tends to veer to the blander side anyway. As my roommate put it, it has “the taste of spice, without the spice of spice.”

Texture: The consistency of the gravy was odd and runny, verging on soup. Rice was a little strangely cooked, but the chicken, again, was the clear MVP.

Authenticity: In my 19 years of living, I have never seen somebody make butter chicken at home. I guess it passes?

Overall Rating: 3.9/5

I would eat this again! Not this week, mind, but maybe the next time I want to feel like I’m in some place called Peacock Express and the waiters all remind me of my older cousins.

Chana Masala with Tandoori Naan

The Chana Masala comes out of the oven looking nice; the chickpeas are round and brown, floating in the thick gravy. Dipping part of the naan into it, which I unceremoniously jammed into my toaster, I attempt to scoop some of the masala. This, unfortunately does not work; the naan is far to thick, by about three q’s, to effectively scoop curry. Eating the chana masala anyway, I realize two things: the naan is very thick (add two more c’s onto that) and the chana masala is somehow more bland than you would expect chickpeas to be.

Taste: Disappointing. Lacks in spice, but is decently savory.

Texture: Nails texture! While the naan is oppressively thick, the chana masala maintains tender, soft chickpeas drowned in a chunky, savory gravy. 

Authenticity: This is the kind of masala that one mom who’s really into “ethnic foods” makes. 

Overall Rating: 3.2 /5 

Disappointing, but still maintaining enough taste to remain at a 3 level. Good as a party food, but not for solo use.

In the end, I was gladly wrong about Trader Raja’s. While I assumed the worst, on the whole the food they had was not an inaccurate display of what Indian food tastes like. While bland at times (a problem quickly solved by an at-home spice kit), the textures were frequently stellar, and the warm, inviting taste carried through well in all of the dishes. 

After all was said and done, however, I ate a fair amount of Indian food with some people I’m close to, and we enjoyed writing, talking, and laughing about it as much as we enjoyed eating it. Maybe the real Indian food was the friends I found along the way. Thank you, Trader Raja’s.