THE DIGEST

It's Alimentary.

Up in the Air

Economy class passengers have this eternal hope that the tray placed in front of them will somehow reveal delectable dishes. More often than not the hot main dish tightly entombed in aluminium foil reveals variations of the flight attendant’s war cry of ‘chicken or beef?’, accompanied by rice, Asian noodles, pasta or potatoes.  

On a trans-Tasman flight in May 2014 on QF161, the airline took on the undemocratic stance of providing only fish curry, a highly contentious move given the average Westerner (by far the majority on this flight) might be less disposed to select fish and/or curry as a safe eating option. The white fish was cooked in an indeterminate sauce with one sliver of tomato, sitting side by side with white rice. Visually distressing but not inedible – if truth be told – it was quite comforting especially for this hungry passenger. The side dish of salad was not a salad, but a sheaf of spinach leaves, without even an adornment of another vegetable for colour. Chlorophyll overload for the senses! I think there may have been a sachet of balsamic vinegar dressing. (Aside – some popular airline salad greens are curly-leafed lettuces – perhaps they are less likely to wilt. However, corrugated iron is similarly hardy.) To complete the meal there was a midget Boost chocolate bar for dessert and packaged cheese and crackers. And there seems to now be now a widespread practice of handing out packets of ice-cream mid-flight? It may just be me, but I somehow don’t relish ice-cream on board – it’s always slightly chilly in the cabin environment … Big tick to those airlines that offer crisp apples in between meals. Brownie points to those that place bowls of fruit and other snacks at strategic points of the aircraft.

I puzzle at pre-meal drinks that are trolleyed out minutes before serving meals accompanied by snack packets of peanuts the size of postage stamps with six tiny said peanuts inside. What’s the point? Another pointless offering are chilled bread rolls. Bread rolls, yes! Warm bread rolls, a bonus! But stone cold bread rolls? Why would you do that? It would have been just fine to toss the bread rolls on delivery into an old carton box rather than refrigerating them?  A half remedy for the passenger is to place the offending roll onto the unopened hot foiled dinner for a few minutes.  Results may vary, but the procedure goes some way towards making her feel like she’s taking matters into her own hands.

For now, most airlines go through the motions of providing “meals” on board, handing out menus with a couple of choices for main meals. You go through the menu and try to select the least objectionable dishes. Airlines generally get on the nationalist game by providing “national dishes” of their home country. Malaysian Airlines used to serve satays ad nauseam on all flights. Currently Cathay Pacific serves rice congee on most flights – comfort food for Asians. Congee doesn’t go down well for most Caucasians, many having a slight aversion to watery rice, some liken it to cat vomit (story on food aversions/taboos forthcoming). My friend Andrea packs her own delectable stash of snacks for her frequent intercontinental crossings.

Keeping good food warm and fresh on board an aircraft flying between 20,000 to 40,000 ft must be hellishly difficult and/but a difficulty all airlines grapple with. This makes me wonder – why bother with providing a hot meal at all? Current medical research advises not to over-indulge with both food and drink on board so it would make sense to provide good quality snacks of fresh fruit (apples, mandarins), dried fruit (figs, apricots, raisins) nuts (almonds, brazil nuts, peanuts) and hard cheese. If all this seems too pedestrian, supplement with enclosed pastries such as small meat/chicken pies, curry puffs or Chinese steamed meat buns.  All these heat up well in the confines of an aircraft galley kitchen and even makes better business sense in terms of storage and labour costs.

Until airlines follow my good advice there are ways seasoned travellers try to look for variation to the standard chicken or beef. Ask for kosher/halal/vegetarian/seafood meals – they may not be much better than the standard meal but at least you get served earlier than the hordes. Pity the passenger who is vegetarian/vegan when mainstream airline meals seem so problematic. Leaf of limp lettuce anyone? Tofu on a stick? Last year, on a reputable Asian airline when I had requested for a seafood meal, the shrimp came in the size of ants, buried in mounds of gluggy rice. Not all airline meals are bad of course. Air Asia’s nasi lemak, which you pre-purchase on booking your air ticket from Asia’s most popular budget airlineis excellent.

Despite the great food served by some budget airlines they are lacking in other areas of basic service, such as flight cancellations with no prior warning and no compensation.  Flying with an appetite can be the great human leveler or act of compromise. Post your airline food experiences! Nostalgic tales of meals from above in decades past when passengers weren’t treated like cattle? Or were they?