It may be all very well to taste gourmet airline food in a hotel on solid ground, but in my experience, it isn’t quite the same thing. To scientifically replicate aircraft conditions, the hotel would have to seat you next to a neighbour who persists on sneezing into your food, behind a colicky baby who shredded your nerves hours ago, and into roughly half the space required by your body. Your waiters would have to wake you from an uncomfortable nap and then set down a tiny plastic tray of food.
Fit for a king? The meals are meant to reflect India’s ‘royal cuisines’. Rajkumar / Mint
With its Star Chef programme, Lufthansa has attempted to control at least the final part of that process, inviting renowned chefs from across the world to design dishes for its flights. Which is how The Leela group’s chefs Surender Mohan and Farman Ali came to learn some core truths about airline cooking. “Like, we need more sauce, so that it doesn’t dry out,” says Mohan. “And we need more spices, because if you reheat the food and serve it 10 hours after preparation, it can lose a lot of its flavour.”
But the challenges go beyond sauce and spice. Kishore Bhutani, a consultant for many flight-catering services, insists that when you eat on a flight, your taste buds are virtually inert. “But your mental taste buds—they’re still expecting the sort of taste you’re used to at home or in a restaurant,” he says.
The menu by Messrs Mohan and Ali is a diverse one, intended to reflect India’s “royal cuisines”, as a press release has it (although which princely state produced the stuffed chicken breast with spinach and ricotta and the bitter chocolate parfait, which we were served, is a bit of a mystery). There was a sterling lal maas, salmon tikkas that tasted like chicken, and an aggressively green palak paneer—all tasty but not spectacular, having succumbed slightly to the vagaries of the second-most hostile serving environment after airline cabins: the buffet line.
Bhutani is a fund of information on the physiological changes that occur when you fly, and how they hit your appetite. Wine that may be too sweet on the ground may be just right in the air; the 1% humidity may make bread taste drier than it really is; Indian food survives better because it is usually more moist. But what, I asked Sunil Sandillya, the executive chef at Ambassador’s Sky Chef, is the first thing he would advise airborne passengers to reach for? “Fruit,” he replied. “There’s never any problem with fruit.”
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