Does grilled tiger prawns on lemongrass skewers served with a Panang sauce and jasmine rice sound appetising? Well, if it does, it will sound even more so in the First Class cabin of a British Airways flight out of Bangkok. It’s one of the many tantalising dishes on that flight’s menu, but it didn’t just appear there because someone randomly thought it was good idea; it made the cut because it fit the many—and quite scientific—factors that the airline’s menu designers take into consideration when picking the right dishes to serve at high altitudes.
Anyone who has flown a number of times can attest to how we feel a little differently in the air than we do on the ground, and when British Airways put this obvious observation to the test they were able to draw some clear conclusions.
Gwendal Hamon, their menu design manager, says, “There are numerous factors which have the potential to affect a traveller’s inflight dining experience, such as reduced oxygen levels, atmospheric pressure changes, low humidity, noise and vibration, aircraft motion and time zones. These, combined with emotional stressors, such as whether flying makes an individual feel nervous, whether a person is travelling alone or with children, the reason they’re travelling and the general collective mood, all play a part in how we respond to the food that is being served.”
“However,” Hamon continues, “we were keen to develop a more rigorous and scientific approach to isolating effects on taste. One of the tests we did was to try different concentrations of salt, sugar and umami with water to see how quickly we could identify which was which. We repeated the same experiment on board an aircraft to see whether the altitude, pressure and other environmental factors would affect our tastebuds. And they did—it took longer to identify all three when in the air. Other experiments looked at how our other senses affect our sense of taste, for example, looking at how much sight, smell and sound contributes to the overall enjoyment of our meal. These findings, among others, led to the development of our newest catering proposition called Height Cuisine.”
Armed with this knowledge, Hamon and the rest of his team proceeded to design the airline’s inflight menus, aiming to create the ultimate in flight cuisine, roping in Britain’s top chefs, such as Heston Blumenthal, as advisors along the way.
Foods high in umani feature prominently on the airline’s menus of course, and passengers have so far have taken well to these. “The response to our umami-based dishes has been extremely positive,” shares Hamon. “For example, in First class and on our Asian routes in particular, we have noticed customers being particularly receptive to the sautéed salmon and gilt head bream with soy sauce, shitake and asparagus, as well as the steamed sea bream and salmon with ginger and spring onion, served with chargrilled vegetables and mushroom sauce. In Club World, our business class, the pear barley risotto with sun-blushed tomatoes is a favourite, and on our Indian routes the chaat masala with onion and chicken kebab with chillies has been extremely popular.”
It’s not just Asian cuisine, which tends to be high in umani anyway, that works well at high altitudes. Continental dishes that have high umani content have proven popular too, and British Airways’ past successes in this area include dishes like asparagus with pea and broad bean dressing with vegetarian parmesan served with a poached hen’s egg; Iberico ham, chorizo and Cumbre de Trujillo cheese with tomato and olive dressing; and the classic tuna nicoise.
And just how does the airline know that people like these dishes? By keeping tabs on how much of each dish was served on particular routes, doing passenger surveys and taking note of passengers’ comments, as well as getting feedback from their most frequent fliers—their crew.
“British Airways has equipped the cabin crew in-charge of every flight with iPads that enable them to send feedback after each flight,” explains Hamon. “Feedback is then compiled every week and allows us to take any remedial action that may occasionally be needed very efficiently and quickly.”
Local and Seasonal Produce
On top of altitude awareness, British Airways also tries to do what every good chef is doing today—using local and seasonal produce wherever possible. Doing this not only means that you get ingredients that are fresher and of better quality, it also means that you save costs because you are getting, say, tomatoes from the local farmer, rather than trying to import them from halfway around the world.
But it’s not always about the food. “Sometimes,” says Hamon, “it is also important for us to understand customs and cultural practices around food. For example, I recently flew to Seoul to help develop our catering proposition ahead of the launch of our flights to Korea in December. During my stay there, I realised how much Koreans have an appetite for beef, so on our menus we will offer a high proportion of beef prepared in both Western and Korean styles. Something else I have noticed while in Korea was being offered a plum drink as the end of a meal. I thought that was a lovely gesture and so onboard we will be offering to all our customers a plum drink after their meals alongside Korean Ginseng tea and Korean green tea.”
So the next time you have a meal on board a plane, think about everything that went into putting a dish on your tray. Because there’s a lot more behind it than first appears.
How Does Our Taste Change at 30,000 Feet?
The food and beverage team at British Airways reveals the science that goes into designing menus for high altitudes.
This article was first published in The Edge Singapore