Why airline food is bland and what it takes to counter this

FOR decades airline food has been the easy butt of jokes for its blandness. Its status can be explained by science: in a 2011 article from the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics IBP in Holzkirchen, the research institute tested in-flight menus from Germany’s Lufthansa AG. Aroma chemist Dr. Andrea Burdack-Freitag explained that up in the air, “Food and drink tastes as it does when we have a cold.”

According to the study, “salt is perceived to be between 20% and 30% less intense and sugar 15% to 20% less intense.” The reasons given for this reduction in taste include reduced pressure in the aircraft affecting a person’s body: “oxygen saturation in the blood is reduced, thus also reducing the effectiveness of the olfactory and taste receptors,” it said. Psychological effects from being up in the air in an unfamiliar environment can also affect taste: “In the unfamiliar environment of the aircraft cabin, people are more exposed to basic stimuli and less likely to notice details. This pushes up stimulus thresholds, with the result that a stronger stimulus is required to trigger a response,” the study said.

Thankfully, media guests to a tasting by Philippine Airlines (PAL) had their feet on the ground during Nov. 16 in Parañaque’s Bamba Bistro, helmed by chef Tina Legarda. Ms. Legarda had been chosen by PAL to create the in-flight menu for its nonstop flights to the US and Canada.

The menu has been available to Business Class passengers since November, and will appear on Business Class tables until the end of the year.

BusinessWorld tucked in to the amuses bouches of The Filly and Maria’s Toast (slow-cooked duck adobo, scallion cream, and torched lychee flambéed in Tanduay Rhum; then homemade longanisa [sausage], guava jam, salted egg cream, arugula, and shallots — both on toasted baguettes). Most everybody loved the comforting Kalabasa Soup (pumpkin soup), made with lemon gremolata and candied pili nuts. There was a Luzviminda Salad with Romaine lettuce, red onions, ricotta, and lychee vinaigrette, while exotic tastes were sated with a Crab Mie Goreng on an egg roll with green onions. The Breakfast Burrito was chicken inasal (barbeque) served mile-high, with scrambled eggs, java rice, lettuce, salsa, and hash browns.

Our favorites included the pan-fried snapper with whipped potatoes, a roasted garlic butter sauce, lemon chimichurri, and steamed asparagus — this course made us truly feel like a jetsetter from the golden age of flying. There was a Nasi ng Bayan, again recalling the inasal with a coffee and annatto sauce, served with coconut rice, peanut paste, and a tangy pineapple salsa.

The savories ended with Boeuf Short Ribs, a creamy offering with Dijon demiglace cream, mushrooms, asparagus, and whipped potatoes.

One could round out the meal on a plane with a Banana Budino Trifle, with banana cake, natillas (custard), caramelized bananas, chocolate ganache, whipped cream, and walnuts.

Not included during our tasting, but still on the menu, were a Gyu-silog (beef in sesame butter and fried rice), and Bangus Inasal (milk fish with banana fried rice).

Ethel Francisco, PAL’s AVP for Products and Services Management, spoke about the reasons for choosing Ms. Legarda as a partner. “The balance is so good. Her flavor profile is vibrant.” Needed when one considers how flying affects the experience of taste.

“It’s very different serving food down here. Salt levels lessen when you’re up there,” Ms. Legarda said of some of the difficulties she encountered while making the menu.

Ms. Francisco talked about how food gets on the plane: “With PAL, and I guess, all full-service carriers, we do work with caterers, who do this for us. We’re talking about multiple stations: The Philippines, LA, etc.” Ms. Legarda doesn’t prepare the food herself, but instead teaches these caterers how to replicate the recipes for mass-production.

“Our kitchen would prepare hot food 48 hours before the flight. Cold food, 24 hours,” said Maria Criselda Rayos, PAL’s AVP for Catering Operations, as she took BusinessWorld on a step-by-step explanation on how food gets from the kitchen to a flight.  “After preparation, it has to go through a cold soaking, as we call it. It stays in a holding room, where the temperature is kept at 5°C. Two hours before the flight, all of this food is gathered, assembled, and brought to the aircraft.”

A lot of the work developing recipes for in-flight food is devoted to stress-testing. Will the food still taste good after being held in the cold? Will it still be palatable after reheating in the plane’s galley oven? “Did the sauce collapse, or harden?” said Ms. Rayos. After these tests, the recipe is tweaked again and again until it gets to a quality fit to serve up in the air.

As cited in the study above, psychology plays a role in how food tastes aboard a plane. They say that the journey matters more than the destination — when it comes to airline food, it might ring true. “In an aircraft, you’re left with nothing to do,” said Ms. Rayos. “Food is a diversion.”

“It separates you from that feeling of fear and nervousness,” she said. “Once a passenger is inside the aircraft, and you give him food — food is everything to him.” — Joseph L. Garcia