Curries to the rescue? It's unlikely that you'll be able to dine on Kerala red snapper coconut curry at 35,000 feet anytime soon--even though its fragrant spices are far more appealing than the usual tasteless airline food.
Surely this has happened to you.
You’re on a transatlantic flight, wedged into a cramped seat, desperately seeking a place to put your feet, trying not to savage the chair in front of you when its 6-foot 3-inch occupant leans all the way back. Right about then, the so-called food trolley trundles down the aisle.
There it is: your meal for the next 5 hours. Mystery chicken or lasagna, brown around the edges and congealing on its plastic plate, limp lettuce with dressing of an unearthly pink hue, a stale roll and rubbery gouda, and “cake” with a gooey layer of extruded “frosting.” Everyone around you is gobbling as if this were the last supper.
Do you eat it? Certainly not. Instead, you reach into your carry-on and….
Yes, airline food is usually tasteless—at best. But why is that?
On the front page of today’s Wall Street Journal (July 27, 2010, “Test Flight: Lufthansa Searches for Savor in the Sky,” Page 1), Daniel Michaels reports that “chefs from Deutsche Lufthansa AG’s LSG Sky Chefs, the world’s largest inflight catering company,” are trying to figure out why “perceptions of sweetness and saltiness drop by up to 30%” at high altitudes—and what they can do about it.
They’re researching the issue in a "chopped up" Airbus A310, located in a $64 million “tubular steel lab” at Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics. The lab, partially buried in a cow pasture, allows technicians to simulate all the pleasures of flying at 35,000 feet, including low air pressure, bone-dry air, deafening engine noise and jarring seat vibrations.
Findings so far suggest that low cabin humidity is the culprit. Dry air tends to “evaporate nasal mucus, which helps odor receptors function,” writes Michaels, and since our sense of taste is actually “80%” based on our sense of smell, meals aloft often have all the appeal of a wad of cotton.
The biggest losers at 35,000 feet are sugar and salt, but fragrant spices such as lemongrass, cardamom and curry remain vibrant. “Chefs mused about offering only curries, ‘but our passengers wouldn’t let us,’” one manager told Michaels.
What the airlines will do with all this research is unknown. But in the meantime, you might pick up a Thai green curry on the way to the airport. Or consider packing a portion of zesty Tabbouleh with Cilantro, Toasted Walnuts, Preserved Lemon and Dried Cherries for your dining pleasure.
That’s the one that goes in my carry-on—along with the eye mask and ear plugs.