Airline food makes its way through many regulatory procedures before landing on your dinner tray at 10,000 metres above sea level. Making it taste good may not be a priority at all.
Once on board, airlines serve hundreds of people quality meals every day using only an oven to reheat the pre-packaged food. But that is just serving. Chefs in charge of creating these dishes run their kitchens like factories, and the last thing on their mind is how the food tastes.
Safety Trumps All
Airline catering companies prepare large quantities of food every day, and like any other mass-produced item, quality tends to take a backseat. However, allowing such an error can cause the airlines a fortune in case a passenger falls sick and decides to sue. This means that there are regulatory standards for cooking; so out with the medium-rare steaks, fish must be cooked to 65 C, and chicken to a 74.
Once the quality of the food is in check, the next concern is consistency in taste. That is, it doesn’t matter if your Roast Leg of Lamb tastes like old leather boots, as long as it tastes like old leather boots every time it’s prepared. Menus are planned for the entire year and the ingredients are sourced well ahead of time. So any difference in taste would indicate that these ingredients have expired, or that the cooking process strayed from the standards. It’s only if certain ingredients seem like they may pose a health threat that the menu is changed.
Deciding The Menu
The menu is designed to please passengers from diverse cultures, so it is a given that one can not expect anything exotic on board. A Pork Belly Stew on the menu might upset most Middle-Eastern flyers, and a Beef Teriyaki will surely get a pass from most Indians. Stereotyping is the way to go here, as it is almost impossible to possess a detailed knowledge of cultural nuances. The bottom line is that the passengers should recogonise what they are offered, and the food served should be the least of their concerns.
Serving On Board
The fundamental formula applied by airlines everywhere when it comes to preparing food is simple- cook, chill, and reheat. The reheating process takes place minutes before serving, and that is where the challenge lies. If the cabin crew turns on the oven at the onset of turbulence, lord knows what will happen to the casserole line-up inside it. And if they are unable to switch it off at the right time, the food risks drying out. Getting larger airline galleys equipped with bigger and steadier ovens may seem like a sensible solution, but that’s better said than done. Revolutionising the galleys will cost a fortune, and most aircrafts come with an installed galley that can not be customised. Also, there are airline and union restrictions to be considered. For example, some airlines do not serve hot desserts. So no molten lava chocolate cake, and certainly no sizzlers.
The only food that can override all the challenges of air catering and manage to taste good is Stew. Simmer it, reheat it, and repeat; a stew will always be a stew. Fried rice and fatty fish are also known to retain their flavour and texture, despite dry aircraft conditions. What you need to skip are pasta, deep-fried foods, and even chicken breast, as none of these reheat well and often exhibit a dry texture.
Whether you like it or not, there are no avant-garde techniques to help aircraft food taste better. The bland super-tender chicken, the potato mush, the pasty omelette du fromage; they have all had their share of inspections and iterations. And this is as good as they can get, for now.