Food and Aviation: Capers
It’s a sunny, crispy Monday morning in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I’ve almost just literally jumped of the plane after a 13-hour Iberia flight from Madrid to Buenos Aires. It’s been two months since I travelled to Belgium to visit family and friends in the midst of the pandemics. As a resident in Argentina but a European citizen as well, I am allowed to travel between Europe and Argentina in these Covid times. It’s already warm. By the time I will finish this article later today it will be hot, hotter than usual this time of year.
8 months have past since the start of the lockdown.
Then just like now one realizes nothing will ever be the same: almost empty planes, abandoned airports, no warm online meals ( on the way to Europe ), duty free shops, even Starbucks closed. Traveling these days feels like a privilege for the happy few. I could not stop myself from feeling half guilty for being on the road.
Almost empty planes
Yet, there is something that blew my mind when flying back home. Apart from the fact that both Nerjis ( my daughter ) and I had three empty seats each, – a guarantee for a good night’s sleep, – the meal on board – chicken in a tomato sauce with white rice, – tasted differently:
Better, tastier, cleaner, more authentic. Unlike my daughter who refuses to eat on board, I love it. Airlines, as a means for survival, love it too.
The Umami in Tomatoes
Whilst searching for this article, I actually discovered why I like tomato juice ( when available ) and all-else-tomato on board. Some of our senses are unaffected by altitude, especially the so-called fifth taste, umami. It is the pleasantly savory taste imparted by foods such as sardines, seaweed, mushrooms, tomatoes, and soy sauce. And additionally, umami taste may actually be enhanced by loud background noise.
And because tomatoes are so rich in umami, “this links to people ordering tomato juice and Bloody Mary in the air in a way they never do on ground,” I am one of these people.
Five years ago, Condé Nast Traveler dedicated a whole article on Airline Food.
“Those old jokes about airplane food? They’re getting harder to make these days. As passenger tastes change, so do the menus of airline in-flight meals (yes, even in economy class). In fact, it’s the back of the plane that presents the most challenge, and airlines are upping their game to please palates with more than a quick snack. ”
As the article correctly points out, the challenge is in the food. I got curious and wondered if airlines sometimes add capers to pimp up their inflight meals. With taste being impaired at high altitude, salt is used to enhance the flavor. Capers being kept in salt seemed to me like the perfect fit. And guess what, I found capers served in onboard meals indeed.
Food & Aviation: The Story of Pan Am
A new book, “Food and Aviation in the Twentieth Century“, by Dr Bryce Evans highlights the unexpected historic significance of in-flight meals.
Bryce Evans investigates an aspect of the airline service that was central to the company’s success, its food; a gourmet glamour underpinned by both serious science and attention to the detail of fine dining culture.
Modelled on the elite dining experience of the great ocean liners, the first transatlantic and transpacific flights featured formal thirteen course dinners served in art deco cabins and served by waiters in white waist-length jackets and garrison hats. As flight times got faster and altitudes higher, Pan Am pioneered the design of hot food galleys and commissioned research into how altitude and pressure affected taste buds, amending menus accordingly.
A tale of collaboration with chefs from the best Parisian restaurants and the wining and dining of politicians and film stars, the book also documents what food service was like for flight attendants, exploring how the golden age of airline dining was underpinned by a racist and sexist culture.
Why airline food can be so bad?
When your taste buds are way above the clouds, your normal sense of taste goes right out of the airplane’s window.
“Even before takeoff, cabin humidity decreases to about 12 percent. Once at altitude, the combination of the dry air and pressure change reduces our taste bud sensitivity. In fact, our perception of saltiness and sweetness drops by around 30 percent at high altitude, according to a 2010 study by the German airline Lufthansa. If you ate airline food at sea level, you might be surprised by how liberally the chefs have actually spiced it.”
Capers to spice it up
Capers add that saltiness to even the most simple dish. It’s easy and its healthy ! No wonder some airlines have included capers, often in their inflight meals with a Mediterranean twist.