Why does it taste so bad? The most obvious reason would be cost. The airlines have a captive audience for a few hours, and figure they can feed us anything, right? Let’s look for some more reasons, like altitude, lack of humidity, physical limitations, time, and logic. Or some science??
It’s not as if they have not tried. My favorite airline, Singapore once hired Gordon Ramsay as a consultant. Air France used Joel Robuchon, and British Airways used Heston Blumenthal of duck fat fame. Another favorite airline of ours, Hawaiian Airlines, enlisted Bev Gannon of the famous Hailemaile General Store, perhaps the best restaurant in all of Hawaii. So why did all of these experts fail? Our recently departed Anthony Bourdain refused to eat any airline food.
While premium passengers are the only ones who get to enjoy the “designer” dishes, none of these efforts seem up to the task. The biggest issue is that our taste buds do not work well in altitude. Add to that, low humidity and high cabin pressure desensitizing our taste buds even further. Perhaps that is why airlines opt to serve us salty stews or spicy curries.
There must be more to it. I never thought that being in a bad mood would alter my high altitude dining experience. But think about it. We rush to the airport, endure TSA, wait around a dingy and dark waiting room, board so slowly that molasses looks fast, and sit in a sterile, aluminum tube for several hours. I guess a better comparison would be serving 450 people at a wedding reception with a kitchen located more than two hours away!!
Temperature is a big deal, food must be kept hot, perhaps re-heated, and served warm to hot in a best case scenario. The shortest “hold” times are 60 to 90 minutes, best case. The food is pre-cooked or par-cooked, then reheated shortly before serving. Vegetables don’t do well, and starches begin to break down.
Then each of you have dietary restrictions. We have vegetarians, vegans, low salt, low fat, low calorie, religious requirements, fish only, lactose-intolerant, spice-haters, vertigo, pregnancy, immuno-compromised, hypo-allergenic, you name it. More requirements than a typical restaurant could possible handle!
Of course, the issue of food safety rears its ugly and necessary head. The food must be kept properly stored, whatever that means. So, simply, hot foods hot, and cold foods cold. I have been on trains in Russia that do NOT have refrigeration, even for raw chicken!! Across ELEVEN time zones, no less!
The simplest foods to prepare would be sandwiches and wraps. The biggest problem here would be sogginess, and keeping the lettuce from wilting. Keeping the sandwich dry means you are eating a dry sandwich. Perhaps a cheese plate with fresh fruit might be the best option, along with a glass of your favorite adult beverage.
The limited budget is a big determinant as well. I heard that by removing the black olives from our salad, saved the airlines over $3 million a year!! You can easily extrapolate the savings from other cost cutters. I often wondered if the airlines would be better off selling hot dogs and hamburgers.
Needless to say, the Asian airlines are best at the food game. Curry over rice stands up to time and heat. But as you might imagine, these types of dishes do not match well with Western or European palates.
Oh, and never, ever buy the for sale in flight food package. These are as close to convenience store junk food as Twinkies, beef jerky, and potato chips. I prefer to carry my own home-made trail mix, or some apples and cheese, energy bar, or banana.
So, meal cost is more dependent on the equipment on the airplane, rather than the ingredients or recipes. Airlines are not going to retrofit their planes for passenger satisfaction. Again, opt for the cold dishes that do not require heating. I prefer the cold seafood platter, or Chef’s Salad, if I have a choice.
So, which food was the best? One airline travel expert opted for the Hello Kitty kids meal box on Eva Air. Another opts for airlines that try to tell the story of their country of origin through food, like Swiss, or Aegean Airlines. Cathay Pacific is another airline known for good food and wine. But when we were on Ethiopian Airlines, they served that gut-wrenching injera, fermented bread! Yuck!!!!
Several airline experts insist that wearing your noise-cancelling headphones while eating, really helps. It is the simplest way to make food and wine taste better. I am also told Malbecs from Argentina taste better in the air. Some wine aficionados recommend a nasal lavage before consuming expensive wine on a flight. I view this as rather extreme, and would never do that, even for a thousand dollar bottle of champagne!
Did you know astronauts love to eat shrimp in space? They fare better with moist and spicy food, I am told. Maybe it is the zesty cocktail sauce? And they have a sweet tooth. I mean real ice cream, not “astronaut ice cream” which is freeze-dried.
The few times I have had ice cream on a flight were memorable. Some even make a sundae of choice, first class of course. I have yet to see a flambé type of dessert. In the 80s, the domestic airlines had a large luncheon buffet, with a make-it-yourself ice cream sundae!
Whatever you do, please board the plane prepared for the worst, since that is what you will get, sometimes even in first class! Bring your own food, that is your best bet!