Thursday, November 02, 2006

Airline Food

The recent Eating Leeds holiday began with two very long flights ... all the way to Sydney from Heathrow, via Seoul. This was actually the cause of much excitement - what would Korean airline food be like? Korean restaurants are thin on the ground here in Leeds, so the food on Korean Air would actually be representing Korean cuisine in general!

Everyone seems to have their own way of dealing with airline food ... one friend advised that he always pre-orders the vegetarian meal but then added that it has backfired on several occasions, when the standard meals have looked more appetising. Another friend, a vegetarian, complained at one point that all vegetarian meals on aircraft are just tofu.

My approach is to always choose the meal option which is closest to the national cuisine of the carrier. The rider here is that most of my long haul travel has been between Australia and the rest of the world, so I've usually travelled on airlines based in Asia. My experiences of food on American airlines (Continental, USAirways) have been appalling, and most flights within Europe you don't get a chance to eat (one notable exception being a very tasty Greek salad on a British Airways flight from Edinburgh to Heathrow - perfect airline food too, as not heavy, stodgy or bloaty!).

The first meal choice on Korean Air proved to be 'Korean fried rice' or 'beef'. Easy choice.

The dish was bibimbap. This quite possibly one of the most inspired and airline friendly dishes imaginable. A bowl was filled with a selection of pickles, vegetables and a little fried mince. It was served with a container of steamed rice (piping hot). You mix the rice in with the 'extras' and top with sesame oil and gochujang, to taste.

Now, wikipedia's interpretation of gochujang is a lot more complex than that served on Korean Air. It was served as a little tube of devilishly hot paste: chillis, garlic, sesame oil and rice wine. Anyone who thinks they can handle spicy food would be put to shame by the Koreans, who were cheerfully mixing in the entire tube. Team Eating Leeds was managing a generous single squeeze ...

This meal has so much to recommend it. It doesn't rely on complicated cooking processes and doesn't contain ingredients which are likely to spoil. The diner gets to control how much rice is added to the vegetable mix (handy on a plane when you are likely to feel twice your usual size), and the diner also controls the seasoning. So - unless you slip, you're unlikely to find the meal too spicy.

It also tastes fantastic - which is, after all, most important! In four flights I scoffed my way through the bibimbap at every opportunity.

The side dishes accompanying the bibimbap were always additional pickles, with varying amounts of chilli. Asian pickles are brilliant - always so crunchy and full of flavour - that they make quite a good palate cleanser.

The desserts were a little indifferent. There was one quite nasty 'zesty lemon cake' which I'd venture to suggest hadn't really been near a lemon, a quite odd vanilla cheesecake (sort of) number, a quite acceptable chocolate cake, and two Korean desserts - yaksik (gelatinous red rice, flavoured with peanuts and dried fruit), and rice cakes, which seemed to be filled with something with the same flavours as the yaksik. The Korean desserts left me a little underwhelmed. But then, dessert is probably the course about which I am most picky!

Other meals available included a beef dish, a fish dish (neither of which I tried, but which did get a thumbs up from Andy) and a very tasty pork dish.

Korean Air certainly did a good job of not only feeding their passengers, but also introducing some novices to Korean food.

One final note ... I was disappointed there was no kim chi but I was able to try this during our stopover in Seoul on the way back. Kim chi is rumoured to have a strong smell ... and I guess if you say 'fermented cabbage with chillis' all sorts of odours come to mind. However, the kim chi I tried did not smell at all scary but it was very, very hot. Eaten with other foods however it was delicious and, like gochujang, I feel it wouldn't go astray on a ham and cheese toasted sandwich!
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