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In-flight meals

Dal subzi, en route to Helsinki

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AIR FARE : Increasingly, flyers across the world are opting for light vegetarian meals

There was a time when non-veg was the default option on International airlines. Now many are packing non-meat options in their meal trays.

It's not enough to check and double travel bookings, tickets and visas. For vegetarians, even meal requests on flights are something that can go horribly wrong. Flights can run out of vegetarian or specially requested meals or simply forget. Last year, a woman aboard a Continental flight, threw her tray and the contents at the flight attendant because she didn't like the food she was served. The passenger, a vegetarian, had been served a non-vegetarian meal.

Scenes, like these, are unlikely to unfold in India, where there are more vegetarians than meat eaters. But with the tribe of plant eaters growing across the globe, airlines are finally paying more attention to what they're packing into those meal trays.

Finnair, which has been flying to non-stop to India since 2006, will make it easier for its non-meat eating passengers by making vegetarian meals available on board. Previously, if you were flying Finnair and you were a vegetarian, you needed to pre-order the meal.

"Vegetarian meals will be available as an option on board Finnair flights, whether the passenger ordered them in advance or not, " says Desmond Chacko, country sales manager for Finnair in India. "The only 'default' choices were between two or three different meat dishes. Now the vegetarian option is presented on equal footing with the other meat options by Finnair. This appeals to passengers who have an affinity or general preference for vegetarian food, but who are not motivated or bothered enough to go through the effort of figuring out how to place an advance order. "

TAJ Sats prepares thousands of meals a week as it caters to more than 20 airlines and when it comes to knowing what works and what doesn't at 27, 000 feet in the air, no one knows it better than them. So in tune is the catering arm with the dietary preferences of Indian flyers that a meal on a flight out of Chennai will taste nothing like a meal out of Delhi or even Mumbai.

"We cater to vegetarians from the North and South and also special meals like Jain, " says Sunil Taneja, director marketing Taj Sats. "A vegetarian's requirements are not just dal and paneer. He expects to be provided chaat as a starter or garden fresh vegetable salad followed by a main course dish like paneer tikka masala, saffron pulao, corn peas palak, dal makhani accompanied by an assortment of Indian bread, yoghurt, papad and pickle. And of course, an Indian dessert like gulab jamun and rasmalai. The meal has to be appetising and look appealing. "

Even an old-timer like the British Airways, which has been flying out of India for more than 80 years, recently overhauled its in-flight menu, making the vegetarian options more exciting and interesting.

"India is a key market for British Airways and we are committed to serving the best-in-class onboard our flights from India, " says Christopher Fordyce, regional commercial manager, South Asia, British Airways. "We keep in mind special dietary requirements and our new menu is designed keeping in mind the preferences and tastes of its Indian customers across all cabins from Delhi and Mumbai. For instance, the in-flight cuisine in India does not contain beef, beef derivatives, veal or pork in non-vegetarian meal. We have introduced a wide variety of vegetarian options specially for our customers from India as well as eggless dessert options. "

Now if you're flying to London, you could find yourself feasting on guncha dum (cauliflower tossed with capsicum and tomatoes with methi leaves), sehrang pulao (basmati rice with dry fruits cooked in yoghurt and hara masala) achaari paneer tikki in roomali roti and pudina dhania tikki.

Usually, the thumb rule on a flight is 60 per cent vegetarian and 40 per cent non-vegetarian. This ratio could change as per the customer profile, the destination being served and various other factors. For example during certain festivals or seasons in India or even on Tuesdays, a larger number of people are predominantly vegetarian or a certain sector may be served primarily by travellers who are primarily vegetarians.

But it's not just Indians who shun meat. Around the world the movement has gathered steam and increasingly a lot of passengers choose to eat a light and healthy vegetarian meal whilst flying. "It has been observed that often most people who have vegetarian food are not strict or pure vegetarians but just people with a general preference. On long haul flights, we've noticed a growing demand for lighter meals, " points out Chacko.

Of course, on most airlines flying out of India, passengers are assured of happy meals but the problem arises if Indians are flying out of Europe or America. Rashmi Chotmarada, owner of A Touch of Class travel agency, says that vegetarianism is not well understood in the first world. "The Asian meal on board won't have meat but it will feature egg noodles or fish sauce...or the dessert may have egg. These are small problems but awareness of vegetarian dietary needs has definitely grown," she says.

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