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

Pan Am catering

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.

Airline Food

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.

The Pan-American Ideal

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.

Virgin America: “Flight Bites” Tapas

11 thoughts on “Food and Aviation: Capers

  1. It’s funny and great what my random google searching brings me to when I just want to learn new things haha. This has definitely been an interesting read and I have learned a lot! I had no idea so much went into the food and aviation caper side of things. This is a good article and I like this website a lot. Thank you 🙂

  2. What a wonderful website. An inspiring source of pleasure in these times where we are limited with where we can go and what we can do. Some luxury to indulge in. A pleasurable read throughout and lots of interesting information throughout. As an avid traveller that is married to an avid foodie – this website is an absolute must. Thank you!

    1. Hi Sofia,  Wow, thanks for liking it so much. When I ‘stumbles’ on this niche, capers, I was sold. And the more I write about them, the more different angles I find. I promise you many more good stuff to come.

  3. When I started reading I was wondering what you were talking about when you said that you got off of a 13-hour  flight from Madrid to Buenos Aires, and that you had not visited Belgium in two months. I thought that you might have been a voice from a parallel earth where covid never happened. Then you explained further and it made more sense. 

    I honestly learned something new today about altitude and how it affects the sensitivity of the taste buds. I’ve always understood that at a certain  height the blood pressure is affected, but never stopped to think that other functions would be affected as well. I have never tasted capers but I have heard that they contain antioxidants and have a number of health benefits. Thanks for the informative article.    

    1. Hi Nicos, thanks for reading my post and your nice comment. That one starting article on capers and what they are is long due. But soon after starting this blog, I stumbled from one topic to the other, never thought I would find so much inspiration on capers. and I am far from done !

  4. Oh wow that sounds horrible. It sounded almost like an abandon airport and the plane. To be honest, I haven’t been traveling ever since the lock down. I wanted to travel but because I worked in a medical facility, I am very limited where I can go. 

    Anyways, I am glad you brought Umami up. Not many people know about Umami but I used to live in Japan and Umami is considered as the another flavor. 

    You are right about the airline food. Everything has to be extra and doubled because your our taste buds get dulls when we are up in the high elevation. This is from my friend who works for Emirates. Do you know that the meals doubles the calories too, just in case that the plan crash and you are stuck in an abandoned island with no food so you can survive longer. 

    Thanks for sharing the information! 

    1. Dear;

      Thanks for being such a good audience. Yes, maybe the introduction of my post is somehow confusing. I am Belgian but reside in Argentina and as such had the chance to travel to Europe and be allowed back into the country.

  5. it’s always nice to read a new topicom search and find the topic really interesting and keep wondering why you haven’t thought about it not for once at all.  Now I know why my friend always like to fly airtalia.  Because of the really good cuisine.  Thanks Alot for the enlightening post now I have another criteria to judge a flight.  

    1. Dear Babakes,

      Thanks for reading and liking the post. I have to admit, I stumbled on this topic accidentally. And now that I have, I can’t stop searching for related topics.

      Hope you will read more of me.

  6. Thanks for the informative post! Glad I learned about altitude in this post and its influence on the vulnerability of the taste buds. Although I haven’t had a taste of capers, I’ve learned that they have some health benefits and, thus, contain antioxidants.

    I didn’t initially get your message right when you mentioned that you hadn’t paid a visit to Belgium for 60 days and you flew on a 13-hour trip to Aires, but when I read further, I got your direction perfectly. Thanks.


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