Vegan UFOs

Tastes great when you're 5 miles high.

Airline meals were the butt of many jokes until they were largely eliminated from domestic flights. Now, all you hear is how much people miss them! However, international passengers can still look forward to airline meals, if only to break up the monotony of long-haul flights (or deride in their blogs).

Most airlines offer a wide variety of “special meals,””  including various kinds of vegetarian ones, such as Asian vegetarian, and lacto-ovo vegetarian, in addition to vegan.

Not long ago I wrote about a suprisingly good vegan meal served up by Philippine Airways. After writing PAL to commend them, PAL’s customer service quickly provided me with photos of their lunch as well as a description of the dish.

Recently, when I flew United Airlines from Tokyo to Washington, DC, it was commendable that my vegan meals were delivered to my seat, as they have often gone missing in the past. And while PAL’s vegan meal was well-conceived, United’s was kind of a mish-mash. I asked the flight attendant if he knew what it was supposed to be, but he had no idea. I contacted United customer service via email, and they referred me to their website for a description (below) of the meal choices:

Vegan Meals

United provides vegan meals that include egg and dairy-free vegetarian pastas for lunches and dinners, and donuts for breakfast. We check labels on processed foods such as breads, biscuits, and pastries and do not include those made with animal fat.

  • Prohibited
    Meat/poultry, shellfish, fresh fish, milk, cheese, eggs, honey, gravy, soups (meat broth/stock), gelatin, anchovies, aspic, roe, honey, whey, glycerine
  • Allowed
    Fresh vegetables, nuts, potatoes, sugar and preserves, sunflower, olive oil and margarine (non-dairy), tofu, soy milk, fruits, grains, dried beans and peas, vegetable stock and gravy

There were 3 “meals” served on the 13 1/2 hour return flight from Washington, DC, to Tokyo. To the best I could tell, the dishes were as follows:

First Meal

The first meal was pearl barley, lentils, corn, peas, canned pineapple chunks and dried apricots, flavored with soy sauce and sesame seeds. On the other side of the tray was bulgur wheat sweetened with something, perhaps shredded orange pieces (I think it was supposed to be dessert, or maybe the packaged applesauce was the dessert?)

Unlike Philippine Airways, United served drinks several minutes after the meal, which meant the food was already cold or, in my case, returned to its foil wrapper to be taken away.

Mid-flight Snack

When the instant ramen was being passed out to everyone else, I received a now familiar pita bread sandwich with hummous, couscous and lettuce. Dessert–and the best thing served during the whole flight–was a bag of sugar free pecan shortbread cookies that I could not resist devouring (along with my 10th cup of coffee).

Before Landing

As other passengers were getting vegetable stir fry, my last meal was polenta–which appears to be increasingly popular as a vegan inflight meal ingredient. Then there was a melange of dried cranberries, canned fruits (peaches, pineapple), raisins and almonds. Accompanied by a white roll and yet another small container of applesauce!

Well, you never could expect much from airline food, so I was glad I had brought along back up food, including fruit, a tabouleh salad, and whole-grain bread, too. A vegan must always be prepared, especially for a flight that can take up to 24 hours “door-to-door”, including layovers, etc.

During the flight, I realized another benefit of being vegan besides “special meals”: Given the 20-30 pounds of weight I’ve lost since becoming vegan, even the narrow economy class seats feel more spacious–as though I’m traveling in business class!

I would love to hear from others regarding their vegan inflight dining encounters.

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