Flying is rarely a calming experience. There's the panic of arriving at the airport on time when your Uber driver decides to take the scenic route. Then the drama at check-in when your bag won't squeeze into the airline's metal measurement cage of doom. (You swear it fitted when you measured it at home). After that, it's a matter of getting through security, navigating the duty free, and finding the right gate—typically a 15 minute walk away on the opposite end of the terminal. When you finally board, it's reduced air pressure, zero personal space, and passive-aggressive fights over the armrest. Fun!
In a bid to make flying less stressful, one airline has enlisted the help of a food scientist and a chef to create a mood-enhancing menu that they claim will put nervous fliers at ease, as well as improve flavour sensations.
Yesterday, UK budget airline Monarch revealed its new "Mood Food" in-flight meal, created by chef Jozef Youssef using research from experimental psychology Charles Spence. Passengers who order the meal receive food and drink at key points during the flight which, according to the airline, use ingredients to "enhance happiness, relaxation, and wellbeing."
And there's not a vacuum-packed scrambled egg in sight.
Before boarding the plane, passengers are given echinacea (a herbal remedy for flu) and liquorice ice cream to boost immunity and reduce the risk of catching a pesky cabin cold. At take off, air stewards serve green tea and lavender mochi. In addition to the soothing qualities of the lavender and green tea, Spence claims that the Japanese rice cakes' bouncy "Q texture" encourages stress relief through chewing.
Next, the menu focuses on boosting the flavour of dishes using umami-rich ingredients. Spence's past research into flavour perception at high altitudes has found that umami is the only basic flavour (out of salty, sweet, sour, and bitter) that can be enhanced onboard flights. With this in mind, passengers are served umami-heavy kelp tea and a savoury seaweed biscuit, followed by a nut bar made with mushroom and tomato (both high in umami) powder.
The flavour combinations might sound unusual but chef Youssef insists that in the air, the dishes work. He told MUNCHIES: "The science and Professor Spence's research lays the foundations but it comes down to good flavour and tastes and combinations to excite people's palates. We know that umami works in the air but how can we make that work for this context? How can we make a tea or a biscuit more umami but at the same time, be something that people really want to eat?"
According to Youssef, it comes down to using those umami-rich ingredients to enhance flavours that are dulled by cabin conditions.
He explained: "We know that when you're flying your sense of smell isn't working that well and there are loud noises, so you're not tasting sweet and salty as well as you could. So, for example, with the sweet and salty nut bar, we wanted something that also had an umami kick to it, to exaggerate and enhance the other flavours."
It's not the first time that chefs (and Spence) have attempted to improve the flavour of airplane food and, in turn, passengers' flying experience. In 2011, Heston Blumenthal created a range of umami-rich dishes for British Airways and in 2014, Spence also worked with the airline to design a flavour-enhancing playlist.
But whether special in-flight menus—including Monarch's new offering—actually calm nerves or enhance flavour is up for debate. Some argue that there's no replacement for high quality ingredients, even in a pressurised cabin. Others say that rather than focus on powdered umami, the key to good airline food is developing dishes that freeze and reheat well.
They might have a point. Eating off your knees from a plastic tray while trying not to elbow your neighbour is never going to be a great dining experience, no matter how much umami you add.