It's that topic that everyone loves to have a whinge about. But really, let's be realistic. One of the key principles of life in a developed capitalist economy is that you get what you pay for. So if you're flying cattle class, guess what - that money is going towards the cost of flying, refueling, maintaining and staffing the plane; the food is really just an add-on. That said, things have got significantly better in recent years, as airlines ramp up their celebrity chef and sommelier offerings in a bid to attract custom in a game that just keeps getting more competitive.
I write this as I am eating an airline meal (my favourite airline, due to loyalty on a number of levels, although many people like to bag it), flying east across the Nullabor towards the delights of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. Think I'm trying to flog a dead horse? I have had over a hundred airline meals (yes feel sorry for me - except for the rare occasions I got to enjoy first or business class), so trust me, I know what I'm saying.
So I'd like to share 5 important tips with you. If you stick with these tips, you'll notice a significant difference, I promise.
Tip #1: if you have a choice, order the cous cous or rice dish. Always avoid the pasta! Rice, and to a lesser extent cous cous, are foods which have the resilience to remain edible even after being stored in the fridge for a couple of days (just go check your fridge). The pasta in your average airline meal, on the other hand, has an extraordinarily high chance of being stuck together in clumps and either dry or way too mushy.
Post note 12 Mar 2011: the key principle here is to avoid a dish with stringy or noodle-like pasta (eg spaghetti, linguini or even penne). I've found that most grain-like pasta is ok.
Tip #2: DO NOT eat the bread. Even for the most undiscerning diner, surely it must taste like slightly chilled cardboard. It is not bread, and is not to be confused with the stuff they serve in business class, which is nicely warmed up with a delightfully soft centre.
Tip #3: Stir your butter through your cous cous or rice. The benefit of chucking the bread is that you can now deploy your butter in your rice or cous cous dish. Butter is often used in restaurants with cous cous, and sometimes rice, and gives it a richer, almost exotic flavour. There, you've already transformed your meal into something better than what the poor mug next to you is trying to force down.
Tip #4: Order the red wine. I'm not sure why, but airline food seems to be almost universally suited to red wine. Even the lighter foods, like creamy or chicken dishes, still have a slightly robust flavour (case in point, the cumin and coriander chicken I'm eating right now, which has a tomatoey base) which pairs nicely with red wine - more than it does with white wine anyway. And here's the bonus - the ubiqitous slice of cheddar cheese lurking on your tray takes on a new lease of life when washed down with red wine - it brings out pleasant vanilla flavours in the wine! The same goes for the piece of chocolate. Don't ask me how. It just is. Even crackers taste good with red wine.
For benchmarking purposes, I try a white wine with these little morsels ... Nope. Nada. Niente. Nunca. Nyet.
Tip #5: DO NOT order the fish, under any circumstances!!! How many tmes have you ordered fish at a restaurant and found it tough and overcooked? Cooking fish, as we all know, is a fine balancing act between leaving enough moisture and tenderness in the flesh, and getting it cooked sufficiently to be edible (and obviously, different kinds of fish have different points of balance). Well, have a think about what the caterers are concerned about first and foremost. Not your culinary enjoyment, but the minimisation of food poisoning lawsuits. Enter the poor piece of fish. Which will be nuked to hell and back to destroy every last microbe and salmonella bacteria. Have you ever seen salmon mousse served on a plane? I think I've made my point. Of course, if you particularly enjoy chewing on a fishy tasting piece of leather, perhaps to strengthen your jaws, then go ahead and order the fish.
You can always just not eat the meal, but that would be tantamount to spitting out the dummy and holding your breath until you get your way. No one wins. And besides, you've got to eat sometime don't you? Of course, if you only had a choice between eggs cooked to the point of plasticity or pasta that's all stuck together into a single clump, discretion might well be the better part of valour ....
Of course, these tips only apply to us economy class punters. The upper classes have a whole host of wonderful and magical contraptions which make dining there far more enjoyable without the need to know special tips and tricks. There's even a microwave up the front, I believe!
There are of course many other tidbits of air travel wisdom I could share with you (like avoid checking in any baggage if you can help it, or sit as far forward in the plane as you can), but if you stick to these 5 handy culinary tips, I am certain that you will notice a marked enhancement in your enjoyment of your inflight meal.