Forget chicken or pasta. Order the Hindu meal on a flight.

by Сашка

Fragrant dal makhani is so much better than fettuccine alfredo

Welcome to The Upgrade, By The Way’s series on travel hacks and hot takes. See how to submit here.

Somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, an Iberia flight attendant hovered over me holding a tray of food. He looked at me — a middle-aged White man — then at the aluminum-foil-wrapped food he was holding, then at me again: “Uh, did you order the, um … Hindu meal?”

It was no mistake. As a frequent traveler, I’ve grown tired of the typical gruel they feed us on long-haul flights. Airlines’ philosophy of free meals is to offend as few palates as possible. So, will that be the chicken or the pasta? I will no longer accept either.

Scientific studies have shown that a combination of changes in cabin air pressure and a reduction of humidity while 35,000 feet in the air reduces our palate’s sensitivity to sweet and salty flavors by about 30 percent. Even loud background noise, such as the humming of a jet’s engine, dulls our taste buds. Meanwhile, spicy flavors are almost unaffected by the change in air pressure, humidity and noise.

The airplane food is good. No, really.

So, a handful of flights ago, I started experimenting by taking advantage of the special meals that airlines offer. I began by eliminating options: Low-sodium and diabetic were out. Vegan and vegetarian sounded suspiciously dull in terms of rousing my anesthetized in-flight palate. Kosher was tempting, but I feared being left to subsist on hummus and carrots.

Instead, I zeroed in on anything that exuded spice. One day a few years ago, I opted for the Hindu meal on a United flight from Rome to JFK. I unpeeled the foil cover and unleashed a wall of aromas, butter and cardamom wafting up to my face. The dish, dal makhani, is a northern Indian staple. I grabbed a fork and dug into the lentils and rice, taking intermittent bites of naan.

On another flight, this time on British Airways from New York to London, I got bhindi masala, stir-fried okra stuffed with spices such as garam masala and black pepper. It was served with silver-dollar-size chapati, an unleavened Indian flatbread, and cucumbers in a spicy yogurt sauce. I took a bite of the stewed okra and my tongue began to tingle.

Read also:
The next great travel debate: How much underwear to pack

Before you accuse me of taking a meal away from someone who needs it for health or religious reasons, I contacted the media relations department at a few airlines. They all echoed what Grant Myatt of Delta Air Lines told me: “There is no limit to how many special meals we can load on a flight, provided that the customer has informed Delta at least 24 hours in advance of their flight.”

And why not? For decades, airlines have been making flights less and less comfortable in economy class. Remember when we were given free meals on domestic flights? Or when airline loyalty programs were based on the amount of miles we flew, not on how much we spent? Or life before “basic economy,” a program that makes passengers so irritated and uncomfortable we are impelled to fork over more money to “upgrade” ourselves to slightly more legroom and the allowance of a carry-on bag?

The Golden Age of airplane food is over. The future: Snacks and sustainability.

Preordering a special meal on long-haul flights is one way enliven what has become a dismal experience.

So, on my recent Iberia flight from New York to Madrid, I happily indulged in tender chicken curry with rice and a lentil stew — a delicious and slightly spicy reminder that there are still ways to enjoy long-haul flights in economy.

The same old chicken or fish? No thanks. I’m holding off for lentil beans with a slight kick, curry-accented chicken or whatever Indian-flavored meal lands in my lap on my next flight.

David Farley is a food and travel writer based in New York. Follow him on X @davidfarley and Instagram @davidfarley7.

Where to go

Our favorite destinations: Take our destination quiz to choose your own adventure. Then read about 12 dream destinations at the top of our wish list — without the crowds.

Travel like a local: Residents share their favorite places in our top city guides: New Orleans, Rome, Tokyo and Mexico City.

National parks: Explore tips from locals for visiting Yosemite, Glacier and Everglades.

Tales from the road: Trace a route along the southern coast of Puerto Rico. See how jamón gets made in the heartland of Spanish pork.

Related Posts