Michele Humes (I live in New York and I write about food.)

How I Would Fix Airplane Food, Were It Up To Me, Which It Isn’t

(Sorry, this is a terrible photo. I took it with my iPad.)

I bet you think I’m about to complain about the pictured meal. Far from it. (Don’t worry, I’ll have complained plenty before this post is over. I won’t let you down.) While it’s not the most photogenic thing I’ve eaten in my lifetime, the entree I was served one week ago somewhere over the Pacific Ocean may have been the best I’ve ever had on an economy-class flight. The less said about the chicken salad appetizer the better, though.

The airline was Hong Kong’s own Cathay Pacific, and the dish, highlighted on the menu as one of their signature creations, was a homestyle Chinese classic: eggplant with minced pork in a highly seasoned gravy, served over rice. I finished it–something I haven’t done with any inflight main since 2005, the last time (sigh) I flew long-haul in business class.

Why does this dish succeed where so many others have failed? Well, for a start, there’s the scallions, the ginger, the chili bean sauce: all bold, aromatic flavors that easily stand up to the smell loss we experience in a high-altitude, filtered-air environment. But it’s relatively easy to cook tasty food, even in large quantities; the hard part is cooking food that stays tasty–food that can sit around for ten or fifteen hours and withstand pitiless reheating. The key, then, is in the texture. Eggplant is mushy; it’s always going to be mushy, and it can’t get any mushier than it already is. So when you encounter reheated eggplant on board an airplane, there is never a sense that the ingredient has degraded over time. It’s the same with ground pork, which retains its textural integrity in a way that a larger slab of meat cannot. Finally, rice is just rice: it’s very hard to mess with it, and steam is its natural habitat.

In airplane food, as in all things, it is best to work with reality and not against it. Cathay Pacific has done exactly that with their eggplant dish, but it’s a rare airline that does. One example of the culinary denial that goes on in inflight catering is the frequency with which broccoli appears on meal trays. The inescapable reality of the crucifer family of vegetables–of which broccoli, along with our friends cabbage, cauliflower and Brussels sprout, is a member–is that they are rich in sulfurous compounds. Overcook them, and you release those compounds, which is why–and there is no elegant way to put this–there are times when you peel back that foil lid and it smells like everyone in the cabin just farted. It seems very basic to me that broccoli, which I otherwise love, has no business being on an airplane, but not all airlines see it that way.

I have flown a lot in my life, almost always on economy. My family moved from Hong Kong to Los Angeles and back again when I was quite young, so I was making the 16-hour trans-Pacific journey as an “Unaccompanied Minor” from the age of seven; then there were the countless end-of-semester shuffles between London and Hong Kong after I went off to university. I almost never sleep on airplanes, and the inflight entertainment options haven’t always been what they are today, so I’ve clocked literally hundreds of hours in the sky thinking about why the food is so awful.

The conclusion I have come to is that the catering decisions of most airlines aren’t based, as I have argued they ought to be, on the physical realities of foodstuffs, but on the airlines’ perception of passengers’ expectations. There is some idea that people at 35,000 feet still want solid-ground food, even if the laws of chemistry don’t permit it. They want their meat-and-two-veg formula, even if, after half a day in a combi oven, it’s meat and veg you can cut with a spoon; they want the thought of an omelet, even if the reality of that omelet is a puck of sponge you could buff a car with. There is probably also some notion that a hot if crappy omelet represents a higher level of service and of value for money than, say, an objectively superior but cold Danish. It’s complicated.

If it were up to me, I would make it very simple. I’d hand out Hong Kong-style polystyrene rice boxes with char siu and ginger-scallion sauce. Those things were made for airplanes. Of course, recognizing that not everybody eats meat, and pork in particular, I’d have to diversify to some extent. In that case, I’d go with chili, meaty or meatless, with bags of tortilla chips on the side. Pulled pork with rice and beans. Fried rice with chicken and salted fish. The common theme: moist, highly flavored foods with textures that don’t “go south,” which I have enclosed in quotation marks because it’s probably not ideal imagery for anything flight-related. (Understand that I am still very jet-lagged.) My handful of examples skew Asian, I’ll admit, but every cuisine has dishes that meet these criteria. Almost anything in, say, American BBQ would work beautifully, minus any prohibitive bones.

Aviation industry: you’re welcome. You’ll never pay me for this advice, but it’s more important to me that you take it. Right now, you’re obviously shelling out far too much money for advice from people like Marcus Samuelsson, whose other work I would never dream of disparaging, but who, let’s be real, leaves something to be desired as an airline meal consultant. I encountered the following bit of poetry last week on an American Airlines inflight menu; I am sure it is perfectly factual, but am less sure how well it functions as commentary on Mr. Samuelsson’s “New American Table” range of shrink-wrapped sandwiches–all three of them.

And I think I’ll stop there, as we already know how I feel about sandwiches.