Oct 28, 2010
The appeal of in-flight meals
While airline food may not be for all, the convenience of eating in an airplane is appealing
The truth is apparently out: Airline food tastes foul not because of its pre-packaged and microwaved generic-ness, but for the distracting white noise of loud engines which mess with your taste buds 10,000m in the air - or so a study released by scientists at Manchester University last week attests.
According to the report, the flavoursome effects of salt and sugar become significantly diminished in a cabin environment, as a result of your tongue being tricked into desensitised inaction due to a parallel assault on your ears.
That's quite a bit to stomach, if you ask me. But then, I've recently also been inducted into the alternative joys of mile-high restaurants, courtesy of oddball friends who happen to take delight in the genre.
You laugh: Who'd trade real crockery, saucepan-baked warmth and proper knife-wielding elbow room for that tiny little handkerchief-sized excuse for a table?
But therein lies the point, so deems my friend R, who believes the greatest thrill of flying comes in those all-in-one trays dispensed at timed, regular intervals.
'It's compact, everything arrives in one box and I just love unpeeling the foil to see what's underneath,' he says.
R swears by SQ and Thai Airways here, while travel magazines favour Alitalia for all-rounded gastronomic quality. My own preference is for JAL, which plays the 'compact-compact' game to perfection with its nifty four-part soba-soy sauce-soup-wasabi kit.
In fact, I call this the 'bento-effect' myself: that feeling of self-contentment brought on by self-containment when all-important worries about what-to-eat-for-lunch become conveniently solved in one elegant arch of your stewardess' arms.
It's about seeing your three-part-meal as a microcosm of life: Everything is included like a self-sufficient caravan. Each stage of your dinner is neatly compartmentalised - from the stackable dessert and bread-roll trays to the centrepiece main course and the space-saving alignment of cutlery rolled snugly into napkins deviously hiding salt and pepper sachets.
It's also about instant gratification: Everything arrives all at once too, on the same plate and disappears the same way back into that magic trolley.
But airline food is also more than all that, and I swear that the trick lies not in the meal itself but the psychological processes surrounding its consumption.
While I have never actually liked the taste of airline food, the prospect of having my choices already made for me - or at most, narrowed down to 'rice or noodles?' - is somewhat perversely liberating. It leaves you at the mercy of the airline chef's dictates, and, even when the choice of a main course has been made, puts you in a tantalising position of wondering what sort of side salads and desserts come with the main meal.
Again, it's not so much what you actually get than the wondering about what you will get which counts, even when options such as Magnum and KitKat become predictable after a while.
Then, there's the false sense of free-for-all snacking and drinking. Here, you can requisition as many mini-packs of peanuts or as many micro-glasses of champagne as you wish during the course of your flight. Of course, you would have paid for all this already within the price of your expensive ticket, but there's no harm in trying to milk a little more out of the system while you can, and feel happy about being a penny-wise cheapskate, right?
Finally, there's the idea that any plane ride, being a rare occasion in itself, casts 'special' light upon any event that did happen within its course - whether a mundane conversation with the businessman sitting by the window, or specifically overcooked pasta nestling in a pool of grease. Not quite yum, but at least ooh.
For me, however, the whole point of airline food lies in how (hooray for KrisWorld!) TV dinners are now officially and morally sanctioned in the name of knowing that there's nothing better to do on a 747 except sit back, relax and watch 10 movies consecutively - better still, with unfussy easy-nibble food on the side.
Let's face it: Airline food is not designed for gastronomes, but for the ultimate couch potato, where everything is within reach of your little ergonomic- but-still-uncomfortable-chair; where all your senses are indulged in (or assaulted) simultaneously by earphones, flickering screens and compartmentalised plastic plates on retractable tables.
Do I like airline food per se? No, but I sure like eating in an airplane.