When flying a good meal can make or break the onboard experience, especially when flying long-haul. But where do these airline meals come from?
While visiting Malaysia, I was given the chance to go behind the scenes at Brahim’s Airline Catering, one of the biggest Halal catering companies in the world who serve Malaysia Airlines and 32 other airlines operating out of KLIA, including AirAsiaX (AirAsia’s long-haul division), Cathay Pacific and Emirates.
Collectively, Brahim’s produce over 50,000 meals on 360 flights each day, including the dish that SkyTrax awarded Best Signature Dish two-years in a row.
Behind the Scenes at Brahim’s Airline Catering
There’s a list of logistical challenges that airlines face when creating new menus. Flying decreases a person’s sense of taste by 30%. Flyers sensitivity to flavours – salty, sweet and spicy – is altered under cabin pressure; and of course, the food needs to be able to withstand being cooked, cooled, and handled multiple times. On top of that, each route flown has different food preferences.
It’s a tough business.
On site, a hyperbaric chamber is used by the Chef’s to ensure that recipes are seasoned correctly and to taste test new dishes; like Poh Ling Yeow’s Nyonya Chicken Curry – but more on that later.
The kitchens at Brahim’s is run with military precision and timing right from produce delivery and storage, to portion sizing and plating. Around every corner are more kitchens with vats of curries being carefully watched over, tubs of fresh fruits being made into beautifully presented platters (and staff showing off their impressive peeling skills when spurred on by visitors!) and computers that show the exact portion sizing and how each dish should be plated to ensure every customer receives the same.
The Most Important Dish Made at Brahim’s
I’m sure if I asked the team at Brahim’s “which dish is the most important?” they’d diplomatically say “all of them” but when touring the facilities it seemed that one dish was the most lovingly (and perhaps painstakingly) prepared – Malaysia Airline’s Signature Satay Sticks.
Added to the airline’s menu in 1974 when, the then Prime Minister, Abdul Razak Hussein suggested that the catering team should add more of a Malaysian flair to their menus; it was a good decision as SkyTrax awarded these delicious satays Best Signature Dish in 2012 and 2013. Today, these delicious satay sticks are served to guests flying business and first class.
Every satay stick served onboard Malaysia Airlines flights is produced by Brahim’s in Kuala Lumpur to ensure the taste is authentic. This can mean as many as 26,000 satay sticks are prepared and cooked each day, along with 200 litres of the accompanying peanut sauce.
Using either beef or chicken tenderloin, the meat is marinated in a mix of shallots, turmeric, garlic, lemongrass and galangal before being hand threaded onto the wooden skewers.
Satay is a culturally significant dish to Malaysians so Brahim’s and Malaysia Airlines want to create the authentic taste that comes with being cooked in the traditional open charcoal grill. To maintain a constant heat, a staff member needs to be there to watch, monitor and fan the flames until each skewers reaches 60 degrees.
Once cooked, the satay are quickly moved to a refrigerator where the temperature is dropped to 5 degrees. The whole process takes less than 45 minutes.
Within 12 hours, the satay will be on a flight and being served fresh to passengers.
Executive sous chef Fakhrul Aliff, who handles the menu planning for Malaysian Airlines, says the biggest challenges is ensuring the food remains consistent, keeping the complexity of a dish at a level which the workers can replicate and adapting the menus according to the passengers who will be eating the food.
A Dish For Australians
As Asian cuisines have become more widely eaten in Australia, the catering staff at Brahim’s have noticed a change in our palates.
“Australians like to taste unique items and discover new things,” Fakrul Aliff told me. While previously Australian passengers have opted for English breakfasts or plainer options, now Australians will also choose a foreign dish, such as Nasi Lemak or fish curry, over an English meal but unlike their neighbours in Asia, they do not like food which is too spicy.
According to the airline caterers, Australians are very particular about what they want from their in-flight food service. They’ve found that Australian’s first meat preference is chicken followed by lamb and then fish. Milk has to be fresh, not long-life and fresh fruit is often requested. Australian flights are also catered with extra beer and wine on board because we like to drink.
Poh Ling Yeow, the Masterchef series 1 runner-up, has partnered with Malaysian Airlines to create a special dish for passengers flying from Australia. Alongside executive chef Zahiddin Dris and his team, Poh has developed her family recipe for Nyonya Chicken Curry which now appears in Malaysia Airlines business class, and economy class when pre-ordered through MAS’s Chef-on-Demand service. The Malaysian-born, Australian-raised Poh says it is an ideal opportunity to combine her love of her two countries and her love of food.
Now it’s over to you
Which airline/s has the best food?
Have you tried Poh’s Nyonya Chicken Curry or Malaysia Airline’s Signature Satay Sticks?
PS: Travelling to Kuala Lumpur soon? Check out the videos that Poh created for some travel inspiration!
Want more behind the scenes access? I went behind the scenes at Malaysia Airline’s Cabin Crew Training.
More photos from behind the scenes at Brahim’s Airline Catering
I travelled to Kuala Lumpur as a guest of Malaysia Airlines.
All thoughts and opinions are, as always, my own.
The image of Poh Ling Yeow is owned by Malaysia Airlines.