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AA curries favor—and flavor—on ORD-DEL flights
by Anne Spiselman
PHOTOS: AMERICAN AIRLINES
AA curries favor—and flavor—on ORD-DEL flights
Starting June 1, passengers in first and business class on American Airlines’s daily flights from Chicago to Delhi, India, can enjoy entrées (mains, to non-US readers) created exclusively for the carrier by Maneet Chauhan, executive chef at Vermilion, downtown Chicago’s renowned Indian fusion restaurant. The first month’s menu features hara chicken (hara is Hindi for ‘green’), braised in a mint-cilantro-lime marinade and served with curry leaf coconut rice and paneer makhanwala, cubes of Indian cottage cheese in a fenugreek tomato sauce. The vegetarian option pairs saag paneer, a trio of greens (spinach, mustard, and fenugreek) enriched with ginger and butter, with dahi elaichi rajma, red kidney beans simmered in a green cardamom yogurt base, and mango rice.
These dishes are a departure from the Indian fare originally offered on the route, which AA inaugurated in November 2005. Although the food on the Delhi–Chicago flight has always been freshly prepared by The Taj Group’s TAJSATS (AA’s caterer in India), the Chicago–Delhi leg previously relied on frozen meals and sauces (to which fresh proteins were added) from an outside vendor because Gate Gourmet, its US caterer, has no in-house Indian chef. The choices were limited to the mainstays of Indian buffets, such as rogan josh (lamb chunks in a mild sauce).
The impetus for change came from customers’ desire for more variety, according to Russ Brown, market manager service planning and development onboard products. After redesigning the Delhi–Chicago menu with TAJSATS at the beginning of 2008—and launching it on May 1 with new dishes like chicken Chettinad, diced coriander-accented chicken with tomatoes and garlic, accompanied by lemon basmati rice and peas poriyal—he returned to Chicago late in January intent on bringing the Chicago–Delhi food to the same level.
American Airlines customers travelling from Chicago to Delhi can indulge with hara chicken—chicken braised in mint-cilantro lime marinade served with paneer makhanwala and coconut rice.
“I started researching local chefs and noticed that Vermilion had won many awards, so I called and got Chef Chauhan directly, which is pretty unusual,” Brown recalls. He admits he was initially reluctant, because the restaurant features Indian-Latin fusion cuisine and he wanted traditional northern Indian specialties that would appeal to both passengers from the region and Westerners who might be new to Indian cuisine; but then he learned that Vermilion’s menu has a traditional section and that Maneet Chauhan had worked for the Taj Group.
“She’d never prepared airline meals before, so we gave her a Gate Gourmet kitchen tour and some parameters, and she picked up on it all very quickly,” he says. “The biggest challenge for me was that we had to do everything in four months in order to launch the program on time.”
Those parameters included cost-constraints, preparation requirements (how far in advance the food is prepared, how it’s chilled for boarding, then reheated), plating variety (the need for chicken, seafood, lamb, and vegetable options), portion sizes (typically 5oz/142gm compared to 8oz/227gm in the restaurant), and galley considerations. AA actually offers the same entrées in first and business, but they are pre-packaged in a casserole dish for business and plated onboard for first.
The process started with Chauhan submitting a list of dishes. Then Brown and Gate Gourmet Executive Chef Marc Lopez went over it and picked those that would be best in-flight. She sent recipes and worked with Lopez to duplicate them, after which they were evaluated with an in-house group of flight attendants and other personnel of Indian heritage.
Saag paneer—a combination of mustard greens, spinach, and fenugreek greens finished with ginger and butter, served with mango rice and dahi elaichi rajma.
Patrani maachali—halibut topped with coconut and mint, served with lemon rice and Punjabi saag paneer.
Dalcha gosht—lamb complemented by mango rice and served with potato and paneer croquettes cooked in a tasty nut-based sauce.
Chauhan's result is a total of about 20 preparations, six of which will be on each monthly menu, with the cycle repeated beginning in the seventh month. Each entrée brings together three items, a specialty rice flanked by a vegetable and a meat/seafood item, or by two vegetables. The July line-up, for example, is shrimp moilee in a delicate turmeric and coconut sauce, with tomato cumin rice and anardana chole, garbanzo beans in a tangy pomegranate seed sauce, or the paneer makhanwala (repeated from cycle one, but this time as part of the vegetarian meal) with tomato cumin rice and dum Kashmiri aloo, baby potatoes seasoned with poppy seeds and nutmeg. August brings dalcha gosht, slow-braised lamb in mint-scented yellow lentils, with mango rice and malai kofta, croquettes of potato and Indian cottage cheese in a saffron-cashew base, as the non-vegetarian pick. The vegetarian meal in November matches kumbh muttar paneer, button mushrooms and green peas sauteed in tomatoes, cardamom and cloves, with beans toren, sautéed skinny green beans with curry leaf and coconut, separated by coconut rice.
“We settled on the symmetrical arrangement to use the neutral rice to separate two dishes with completely different flavor profiles and make sure they wouldn’t get mixed together,” explains Chauhan. Because all the food has to fit on trays that go directly in the oven, she says she also had to avoid anything “spiky” and her flamboyant restaurant presentations. Instead, she depends on creative garnishes like curry leaves and Indian hot chilies, as well as the vibrant yellows, greens, and other colors of the food itself.
Punjabi saag paneer—a vegetarian option, with cubes of Indian cottage cheese immersed in a rich fenugreek tomato sauce paired with tomato cumin rice and dum Kashmiri aloo.
For Chauhan, quality and freshness have been the main concerns. “In the restaurant, everything is cooked to order so it’s as fresh as it gets,” she points out. “For Gate Gourmet, I had to design precise, scalable recipes that would retain this freshness, because the prep is all in their hands.” These recipes provide step-by-step instructions for preparing spice blends, pastes, and sauces, and two days of training sessions focused on details like the importance of roasting the spices, of using high-quality brands, and of fresh herbs such as mint and cilantro. “When we tasted the dishes, they always were cooled and reheated like they would be on the ’plane,” she says, adding that seasoning levels (but not hot peppers) were ramped up about 25% to compensate for the fact that “tastebuds are dulled at 35,000 feet.”
A few items were cut from the repertoire for various reasons. “It turns out that dry dishes like keema muttar (minced lamb with green peas) don’t lend themselves to being cooked, cooled, and reheated,” Chauhan reports. “They get, very, very dry.” She also decided that some preparations simply required too many steps and weren’t any more delicious than those that are comparatively easy, such as the hara chicken. On the other hand, she did overcome AA’s initial insistence on everything being northern Indian. “At the tastings, people loved the shrimp moilee and beans toren, so we got to keep them, even though they’re more southern.”
Reflecting on the experience, Chauhan says she’s very proud that AA chose Vermilion and delighted that people will be tasting her food and reading about the restaurant while flying to her homeland. Vermilion founder/owner Rohini Dey echoes those sentiments, but she’s also glad they have an invitation from Gate Gourmet to spot-check the food anytime. “Our brand is out there and we’ve broken the bonds of convention by going beyond the big eight (most popular Indian dishes), but maintaining the quality of the execution on an ongoing basis is potentially difficult,” she explains. “Still, we’re all keen on making it successful—and, who knows, maybe we’ll get to develop entrées for economy class.”
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