April 20, 2021
When I was in graduate school, the hours before flights to New York from Bengaluru were full of tearful goodbyes, promises to return soon, and last-minute packing that ended with food. For many South Asians who leave home — for college, grad school, or even a short trip — home-cooked food, such as batch-cooked dal, a stack of chapatis, poriyals, or biryani, is almost an obligatory packing item.
There’s a comfort that comes with having home-cooked food available at the punch of a microwave button. Though the U.S. is no stranger to the wonders and affordability of prepared convenience, you may be hard-pressed to find a lot of good Indian fare.
But walk down the aisles of your nearest Trader Joe’s — the national grocery chain with over 500 stores, known for its purposefully limited selection of products and the cult-like reverence to them — and you’ll quickly find hints of India. After passing the spiced chai, the wildly popular naans, and a pleasantly tangy mango ginger chutney, you’ll end up at the frozen section. Amid bags of cauliflower gnocchi and a stack of vegan jackfruit cakes, you’ll likely find foods that resemble the menu of many Indian restaurants — garlic naan, butter chicken, palak paneer, lamb vindaloo, fish korma, tikka masala, vegetarian biryani. You’ll also find shelf-stable pouches of Madras lentils and Jaipur vegetables, and a Masala Simmer Sauce for home cooks. For regular Trader Joe’s customers, it’s a culinary journey to India without ever leaving the U.S.; for South Asians across the country, it’s dinner that tastes a bit like home for $3.