High up in the sky,
a compartmented tray,
consuming airline food
Since I was a little boy (many decades ago), I have been travelling on aeroplanes, usually to and from holiday destinations. The food served during flights has always intrigued me. As a child, I used to collect the miniature containers of salt and pepper that appeared on the compartmented food trays. I can remember these better than the far from memorable food served with them.
In 1963, we took an overnight flight from New York to London. When the breakfast tray arrived, I remember that there was a hot, foil-wrapped item on the tray. Cautiously, I unwrapped it to reveal a long spindle of something yellow and rubbery. I hit it with a knife. The knife bounced off it. My mother told me that what I had revealed was an omelette. To this day, omelettes on ‘planes have repelled me. I love freshly made omelettes, but one made several hours earlier and reheated has no appeal for me.
The best food I have eaten in the air was on Air Lanka ‘planes in the mid-1990s when we were travelling between London and Colombo. The food was served in large foil containers, rather than in in tiny neat plastic dishes. Delicious Sri Lankan curries were served. They tasted as if they had been lovingly prepared in someone’s home rather than in an industrial kitchen. My wife recalls eating whole steaks and caviar on an Aeroflot flight between Moscow and New Delhi in the late 1980’s. The burly stewardesses served the food on real porcelain plates.
More recently, I have been travelling regularly to India. There is a direct flight between London and Bangalore operated by British Airways (‘BA’), on which we used to travel. The staff on these flights were coolly efficient. The meals were not so good. For some years I had a dental patient, a friendly fellow, who worked for BA as a cabin crew member. When I told him that I was not keen on what was served on BA, he suggested that I pre-order the seafood meals. These turned out to be better than the regular meals, and we ordered these on several successive flights. Then, on one BA flight I was seated next to a very devout Muslim couple, who did a lot of praying during the ten-hour flight. When their meals arrived, a delicious aroma spread from their trays. When they removed the foil from their hot dishes, I saw that they had been served with what looked like really nice curries and biryanis.
After seeing these halal meals, that is what I pre-ordered on all our subsequent bookings with BA. We were not disappointed. BA used a good quality halal caterer. Many people who order halal food are teetotal. The BA crew did not raise an eyebrow when we ordered gin and tonic or bloody Mary cocktails with our so-called ‘Muslim meals’.
Before BA operated the direct flights between London and Bangalore, we had to make the journey with one change of ‘plane. The German airline, Lufthansa, ran a convenient flight from Frankfurt (Main) to Bangalore. On one occasion, we were served two meals on the flight. The first meal included some meat. Several hours later, the second meal arrived. It was a selection of vegetarian food items. Now, I have nothing against vegetarians and vegetarian food, but I like a bit of meat or fish with my veg. I called the stewardess and asked if there was a non-vegetarian option as there had been during the earlier meal.
“No,” she said abruptly.
“Why?” I asked.
“In Germany,” she explained, “we only eat meat once a day.”
What nonsense, I thought. Whenever I have visited Germany, I have seen people eating meat at breakfast, lunch, dinner, and in between these repasts. I was not going to put up with her inaccurate reasoning.
“Well,” I replied, feeling a little bit hypoglycaemic, “I shall be ill if I eat this vegetarian offering. You must find me some meat.”
“One moment, please.”
She disappeared out of our cabin. Maybe, she was worried that I might eat her. After some minutes, she returned with a tray containing some very tasty pieces of fish.
Apparently, Germans who travel business class eat non-vegetarian food more than once a day.
I cannot understand why airlines feel that they have to serve hot dishes mid-air. Most of these dishes are shoddy versions of the descriptions given to them on the tiny menus handed out to fool you into thinking that the airline will treat you to ‘fine dining’. I believe that many people would be happy with a selection of tubs of what the Greeks call ‘meze’. These could include things like hummus, taramosalata, tzatziki, olives, cole-slaw, nuts, mutabel, guacamole, salsa, etc. No cooking required, and fun to eat.