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Plane food has come a long way since British Airways served beef tea and sandwiches 85 years ago. Today, braised beef cheek, horseradish mash and salmon tartare are the dishes emerging from the in-flight convection ovens and sky-high galleys.

On every continent celebrity chefs are being courted by airlines to consult on Michelin-star menus at high altitude – usually for meals served in first and business class. Heston Blumenthal is teaming up with British Airways, Joel Robuchon is heading for Air France, Michael Chiarello is cooking for Delta and Richard Sandoval is working with American Airlines.

Other earth-bound food trends and concepts are also finding their way into the sky. Singapore Airlines is serving coffee with an array of miniature desserts, inspired by the café gourmand movement now popular in Paris, and British Airways has an Olympic-themed menu for summer 2012.

Yet in a December 2011 survey by Skyscanner, a travel comparison website, four of the five world’s largest international airlines were not in the top 10 when it comes to in-flight food (Emirates was the only airline that was featured). Photos at Airlinemeals.net, a website dedicated to aeroplane food, illustrate the stodgy and unpalatable stereotypical imagery --- and reality -- that many airlines need to counteract. It’s not easy getting haute cuisine out to hordes of passengers.

Providing quality meals at an altitude of 35,000ft is the main challenge. Dehydration and cabin air-conditioning suck out much of food’s flavour. When taste buds become dry, they also become less receptive and your sense of smell is blunted, making subtle flavours nearly impossible to detect. Even the very best wines become dulled, and food can taste bland and under-seasoned when in flight.

There are also other constraints for the cabin crew who work within tiny galley kitchens. Most of the food has to be pre-cooked in industrial kitchens before the flight, then chilled to retain the quality as well as for hygiene purposes.

“The [challenge] is ensuring meals are served to the same exacting standards that the celebrity chef would expect in his or her own restaurant,” said Gerard Clarke, UK general manager for Hong Kong Airlines.

Top chefs have suggested combating cabin dehydration with a "nasal douche" – spraying water up ones nostrils -- before tucking into a meal. Other airlines have been increasing their use of umami, which is one of the five basic tastes discovered by the Japanese (together with sweet, sour, bitter and salty). This flavour does not diminish in the arid cabin atmosphere and is present in the likes of porcini mushrooms, spinach and soy sauce, among others foods.

Umami-rich ingredients are now regular fare on the British Airways in-flight menu, courtesy of Heston Blumenthal. They also help reduce the traditionally high salt and sugar content of aeroplane meals.  

Turkish Airlines came out on top in the Skyscanner survey, in part because of their range of special meals, including kosher and seafood options. Turkish Airlines is also introducing chefs onto the plane to spruce up the meals, but this tends to only be for first class passengers.

 

 

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