There’s always a sense of whimsy and excitement when people reminisce about the golden age of air travel, from the 1950s through the 1980s. Back then, air travel was a luxury and travellers went to great lengths to dress up. By the 1990s, suits and dresses had given way to jeans and sweatpants, and commercial flights had reached new heights, literally and figuratively.
However, with these incredible heights came new challenges. Soaring at 30,000 feet in the dry environment of an aircraft cabin somewhat alters one’s sense of taste – if you ever thought that airlines serve bland or unappetising food. It’s little wonder then that airline food was a favourite topic among stand-up comics in the 1990s…that is, until AirAsia came along.
What is Santan?
In Malay, santan means coconut milk, a key ingredient in many dishes around the region, including Indonesia’s nasi padang and Malaysia’s ever popular nasi lemak.
Savouring dishes that share similar ingredients but have their own unique flavour profiles, AirAsia guests are given a sampling of the region’s culinary traditions while in the air, enticing them to go on to explore local delights in the destinations they fly to.
Tony Fernandes, CEO of AirAsia Group, introduced Santan in August 2015 to offer an unrivalled dining experience conceived as a ‘restaurant in the sky’.
“Our food must be as good as restaurant food – it’s not just in-flight food. We want to introduce a new gourmet in-flight dining experience that features cuisines from across Asean,” he said.
Ever proud of its role as an Asean airline (and the fact that it is one of the few airlines to fly to all 10 Asean countries), AirAsia tells tales with its food, revelling in the diversity of regional cuisine while celebrating the common elements that bind together the flavours of Southeast Asia.
Crafting a Santan menu
To create that restaurant dining experience while addressing the challenges posed by the dry environment of the cabin, a lot of thought has to be put into preparing and presenting meals that may be safely consumed and enjoyed in flight. This is where AirAsia group in-flight F&B regional manager Chef Calvin Soo comes in.
Tasked at working with teams across the region to develop menus for the airline, Calvin travels across the Asean region and to countries like China and India to sample famous local dishes. He also frequents night markets and street stalls to hunt for authentic flavours.
“It doesn’t matter if a dish is prepared at a fancy restaurant or a roadside stall – when it’s good, it’s good!” he says.
Calvin adds that Santan’s menu is revamped quarterly to showcase the flavours of the region at exceptional value-for-money — an integral part of AirAsia’s service offering — so there’s always something new to try.
A prime example of new creations include Santan’s latest game-changing meal that brings together the best of the East and West – Thai flavours and the classic all-American burger – Chef Hong Thaimee’s INSPI(RED) Burger. Just play the video below and you may just start drooling uncontrollably.
“We plan our menu a year in advance, giving special attention to festivals like Chinese New Year, Eid, Deepavali and Christmas. Once we decide on a menu, we spend the whole year developing it,” he reveals.
This may sound like a really long time to work on a menu, but Calvin and his team have to ensure that the recipes introduced comply with the most stringent safety and hygiene standards, including Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HAACP) and halal certification.
“There’s a common misconception that airplane food is prepared way ahead of time – that it is not fresh. In reality, our food is prepared fresh every day, with fresh ingredients,” Calvin says.
“Everything has to go through a strict controlled process to make it safe for consumption, and we have to ensure that meals taste as good as they do on land.”
How much preparation goes into a Santan meal?
All AirAsia meals are prepared ready-to-eat in a HACCP-regulated commercial kitchen before being blast chilled, with strict adherence to safety and hygiene standards.
The meals are then assembled in a temperature-controlled room, where workers neatly package the meals in their respective containers.
Over at AirAsia’s warehouse, the in-flight team checks the day’s delivery before accepting it to be placed in the chilled storeroom, which is kept at a temperature of between 2°C and 4°C. About 15,000 meals are delivered to the warehouse daily for AK flights alone!
An hour before a scheduled flight, meals are loaded onto airline carts to be transported to the aircraft in refrigerated trucks.
Once the aircraft reaches 10,000 feet, it is safe for the cabin crew to begin the reheating process, preparing meals to be served.
Challenges of maintaining flavours in the sky
Studies suggest that high altitude, dryness and low pressure affect how food tastes, as the sensitivity of one’s taste buds and sense of smell are reduced in this environment.
As such, Chef Calvin must design each dish taking into consideration all these challenges, as well as the fact that each new meal introduced has to withstand on-board conditions – for example, being blast chilled and stored in a refrigeration facility at 2°C!
Other factors to take into consideration when designing meals include observing nutritional value, managing weight of meals, and maintaining the consistent quality of in-flight meals on a day-to-day basis.
To ensure consistency in flavour, every morning, Calvin and the In-flight Quality Assurance teams across the region sample up to 25 different dishes, vigilant of any inconsistencies.
Sounds like a foodie’s dream job, but it’s not just about gorging on in-flight delights. Their role is a serious one, vital in ensuring that guests are served only the best.
Santan has brought about a new era where good food is no longer the dominion of only well-heeled first class passengers, as now, everyone can enjoy delicious and satisfying meals 30,000 feet above the ground!
Flying soon? Pre-book Santan Value Meals up to two meals per guest, per flight via My Bookings at airasia.com to enjoy meals cheaper than airport prices from only MYR10 (comes with a hot meal and a drink), a wider variety of meals to choose from and priority delivery on board.
Browse through the extensive Santan menu for all AirAsia flights here.