Monday, December 03, 2007

Budget Gourmet: Microwave Indian Food

If you have ever been a student on a tight budget, you have probably at some point wondered if there was more to life than Ramen noodles, Easy Mac, and Hot Pockets. It is possible to eat nutritious and economical meals without getting stuck in the high-carb, high-salt, high-fat rut of college eating.

One of my favorite budget meals (and Karl's, too), is ready-to-eat Indian food. For less than $2 plus the cost of two or three servings of rice (your choice), you can have a filling, delicious meal for two that would otherwise take hours to prepare or cost at least $10 to order for take-out.

Each package contains a sauce (or a curry, if you will), which can be heated either on the stove top or in the microwave (it takes about 2 minutes to heat up in the microwave!). Some of them are bean-based and some are dal-based (made with lentils). I have only had one or two that I really didn't like.

My favorite kinds of sauces usually include paneer, which is an Indian version of cottage cheese or ricotta. It is usually compressed into cubes or rectangular prisms. It's slightly tangy and pretty dry, but also very rich. I am unashamed of my addiction to paneer! If you are a fan of ricotta, you will love paneer.

If you like spicy food, there are plenty of spicy curries to choose from, and most brands do indicate on the package the product's spice level. Just as a tip, "medium-hot" is usually pretty spicy, so if you don't like spice, go for the "mild" flavors.

Karl and I eat these one or two times a week. There is enough curry for two people in each package. We usually cook up 2-4 servings of rice to mix the curry with, and bake a couple of Pillsbury frozen biscuits to go on the side.

You can find these in any Indian grocery store. You can also purchase them at Trader Joes, the Market District Giant Eagle, and Whole Foods (though they are priced higher in supermarkets than in the Indian grocery stores).

As a bonus, when you spend less than $5 on dinner for two, you can probably afford to spend another $5-10 on a bottle of wine or a six-pack of beer. Pairing wines with Indian food can be a bit tricky, but I have had some success with dry, fruity Sauvignon Blanc. I also enjoyed pairing Indian food with the 2006 Santa Isabel Torréntes that I reviewed in a past post (I couldn't think of anything to pair it with at the time). If red wines are your thing, try a wine that you think of as more fruity and off-dry than spicy. The fruitiness will balance out the spiciness of the food and complement it, as opposed to a spicy wine (like a typical Shiraz) that would compete with the food. For beers, something with some dry acidity would be great, like an India Pale Ale or an English Pale Ale. Depending on the food, a sweeter Belgian ale might also be good.

Below are some links to some of my favorite brands of ready-to-eat Indian food (Priya, MTR, and Ashoka) so you can get an idea of what the packaging looks like. A lot of these website grocer's are charging up to $5 for one package, but at the India Bazaar in Monroeville, PA, (where I do most of my Indian grocery shopping), each package is at most $1.99 and they often are on sale. I strongly encourage you to take your patronage to these smaller grocery stores where you will find a greater selection to choose from and, most likely, better deals.

Ashoka Dal Makhani
Ashoka Palak Paneer
MTR Chana Masala
Priya Mango Dal

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