I rather like airplane food.
For instance, one of my most memorable meals this year actually took place in the sky. I was on a Japan Airlines Tokyo flight, and their inflight meal completely blew me away. Think generous katsudon (breaded pork cutlet) chunks, steaming white rice, smooth and thick miso soup, those salty-sweet Japanese rice crackers, and *drumroll, please* some Haagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream. And no, I never fly first-class in case you’re wondering.
I acknowledge that this is not the case with many travelers, however. A lot of them often complain that airplane food is bland, soggy, and just plain sad. Oliver Beale, an advertising executive, even went so far as to email Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic some rather disgusting images of his airline’s meals, describing them as a “culinary journey of hell…yellow shafts of sponge..dessert with a tomato…sour gel with a clear oil on top…a cuboid of beige matter…more mustard than any man could consume in a month…and a cookie that’s like biting into a piece of brass.”
But hang on, aren’t airlines hiring all those celebrity chefs to improve their sky menus? That may be so, but it turns out the main reasons why airplane food often tastes bad comes down to you, the passenger, actually.
For starters, your sense of taste is greatly diminished when you’re airborne. At 35,000 feet, it’s the first thing that goes. The air pressure desensitizes your taste buds, and the persistent humming from the plane’s engines and turbines doing their thing can also kill your appetite. (To simulate the effect that unpleasant background noise can have on your appetite, try to eat a plate of lechon while your Tita Baby goes on her high-pitched and breathless why-you-should-get-married-now-have-kids-drop-your-job-millennials-are-ruining-everything lecture right beside you. Go on.)
Simply speaking, you can’t taste food that well while flying. Your receptors for sweet and salty flavors are off-kilter, so just about anything will taste, well, tasteless.
On another note, the low humidity onboard the plane can dry out your nasal passages, so it wouldn’t matter if that foil-wrapped fish was steamed with legendary herbs from Mt. Olympus. You wouldn’t be able to smell it and enjoy its flavors anyway.
The other problem lies in logistics and costs. Airplanes don’t have kitchens, and much of the food served on them are precooked and parboiled beforehand because the energy allowance for heating food on a flight is very limited. This is why most inflight meals taste like leftovers that were sitting in the fridge for days; in some cases, that’s literally where they’ve been.
Also, when you take into account all the dietary restrictions (vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, halal, kosher, lactose-intolerant, pregnancy-friendly food, etc.) from various passengers all over the world, you’re left with relatively fewer ingredients to make meals with, especially when you consider how delicate meats, starches, and certain vegetables tend to break down after being heated up repeatedly.
And going back to all those celebrity chefs that airlines hire to beef up their menus? It’s a start, and all those lucky passengers in first class can certainly experience dining on fresh lobster tail at 35,000 feet because of this.
On the other hand, if an airline were to dedicate itself to consistently delivering high-quality meals for all passengers at high altitudes, they would have to completely re-engineer the entire process. Retrofitting entire fleets of planes and redesigning completely new ovens is very expensive, and because majority of air travelers tend to prefer value over luxury, that move probably won’t be cost-efficient for the business.
Still, there are quite a few things you can do to make your dining experience in the sky more palatable. One is to hang on to those salt packets. Feel free to use them if your fish fillet with noodles tastes like cardboard. Put on some noise-canceling headphones while you’re at it, and observe how it immediately improves your enjoyment of the food.
Another option is to bring a TSA-approved nasal douche with you on your next flight. A couple sprays in each nostril ought to bring back your ability to smell and enjoy all that oregano in your beef stew (but possibly along with that onion-y odor emanating from your seatmate’s armpits, so use this sparingly).
My favorite solution is to fly with Asian airlines. Majority of the complaints I’ve read online come from the passengers of Western airlines, and let’s face it, Western cuisine tends to come across as unseasoned even on solid ground, so you’re not likely to have a better experience onboard. When your tongue behaves as though you have a cold, all those spicy curries and fragrant rice bowls (hello, Japan Airlines!) are sure to wake up your senses.
Should all else fail, go by Gordon Ramsay’s short and sweet commentary on airline food: “There’s no f****** way I eat on planes.”