Suresh Menon: When flavour takes flight

Suresh Menon is a writer based in India. In his youth he set out to change the world

By Suresh Menon for Friday magazine
00:00 March 23, 2012

As a boy, I was often led to believe that I was responsible when things went wrong. Gate left open? That was my fault. Neighbour had a cold? Ditto. India lost to Australia in cricket? All down to me, of course.

Guilt was my constant companion, and it wasn't until I was much older and in the happy position of being able to blame my son for everything that I finally began to shake it off.

In all these years, however, there was one thing I was never accused of ruining - airline food. It was uniformly unpalatable regardless of airline and independently of me. This was always reassuring.

But now that old feeling is back. Scientists tell us there is a reason food tastes differently at 35,000 feet than it does at home or in your friendly neighbourhood restaurant. The sense of taste loses its bearings up in the air - in other words, it's all my fault again. If only I had better taste buds capable of resisting flavour-destroying situations like altitude, airconditioning in planes and even the manner in which food sometimes dips along with the aircraft, I wouldn't complain so much.

Subtlety is not well-served at altitude, according to an expert. To expect pasta to taste like pasta or tomato juice to taste like tomato juice is apparently too subtle.

I should be content with the juice tasting like aviation fuel left over from the previous flight and if the pasta tastes like my wallet I should consider myself lucky - it could so easily have tasted like my socks.

Another expert has said that getting any food to taste good on a plane is an elusive goal. The corollary - "So why bother?" - is left unsaid, but as elusive goals go, it is in the same room as world peace.

Scientists and airline chefs make a strange team. Yet, together they have solved many of mankind's leading problems: How should cherry tomatoes be sliced? (The answer: Leave them whole). What side should a chicken fillet be grilled on? (Skin first). How many slices of beef bacon can be used as appetizers? (Two large ones rather than three, given the balance between taste and price).

The real problem about airline food, however, is not the altitude so much as the attitude. In the words of a chef, "If I put a sauce on a plate at my restaurant, I bark at the waiters to hold the plate straight so it doesn't spill. But you can't bark at the pilot to fly the plane straight, can you?"

Perhaps it isn't my fault after all. It's all because the bite is worse without the bark.