Emirates Woos Busy Indian Market With New Menu to Tickle Regional Tastebuds
This article appeared this morning in the Traveller section of Mail Today.
It transports more Indians abroad than any other carrier operating in the country. Now, Emirates has become the first international airline to cater for India’s diverse taste buds by introducing region-specific meals. Even Air-India hasn’t done it.
135K … Average no. of meals Emirates Flight Catering Kitchen produces in a day
4.5M … Number of passengers flown in and out of India by Emirates in 2011-12
764 … Menu options to be served in 2014-15 on Emirates flights to/from India
280 gm … Average weight of economy class hot meal defined by airline norms
50-200 … Production cost in dirhams of an Emirates meal, depending on the class of travel / meal category.
MOST airlines wash their hand of the volatile matter of food, for at the altitudes that planes fly, the texture of food changes for the worse because of cabin pressure, as does the receptivity of our taste buds as a result of the altitude. The food served on a flight, moreover, is prepared and blast chilled hours before it takes off because of safety and security requirements. More importantly, a meal costs an airline between Rs 800 and Rs 4,000 (depending on the class) — too small a component of the fare to matter much.
Going against the market sentiment, Emirates has opted for innovations. On April 1, it unveiled a brand new menu for its Indian sector, which is the busiest after Dubai for the airline, with 185 flights a week from 10 cities. The new menu caters for regional cuisine preferences to the extent that you can have butter chicken from Delhi, pepper chicken from Thiruvananthapuram and the traditional Bengali fish curry, machher jhol, from Kolkata. And for breakfast, you can choose between akuri (scrambled eggs done the Parsi way) on toast or vada pao from Mumbai.
The recipes for these dishes, which have to be tweaked from the usual keeping in-flight conditions in mind, have all been developed by a team headed by Executive Chef Ravi Nage at the Emirates Flight Catering Kitchen in Dubai, which holds the Guinness World Record for being the largest facility of its kind in the world, dishing up on average 135,000 meals a day (on December 20, the number peaked at 157,000). As many as 500 chefs representing 37 nationalities work at the kitchen, where Nage has his test kitchen in one corner of an endless sprawl of buildings in the shadow of the Dubai International Airport.
Commenting the Emirates move, Rajeev Nangia, a travel and tourism sector veteran, and COO of the Delhi-based outbound market developer, TRAC Representations, said that airlines go the extra mile on food only for long-haul flights, so the efforts being made by the Dubai carrier to address its Indian sector’s regional cuisine preferences are clearly a way of creating excitement about the product.
In 2011-12, Emirates flew more than 4.5 million passengers to and from India, which assured the carrier the pole position with a 13 per cent market share. But with Etihad and Qatar upping the ante, there’s competition for Emirates.
One of the ways in which the airline is taking on the competition is by going regional in its menu offerings. Not only are its menus printed in regional languages (Hindi, Gujarati, Tamil and Malayalam), even the pickles have been selected keeping regional preferences in mind. Passengers in the southern sector will get the popular mango toku, those in the west, the chunda (grated mango), the eastern sector will be served the tomato garlic pickle, but the north will have to make do with the regular pickle.
“We tasted and tested 40 different kinds of pickles before shortlisting these,” informed Nage, who’s from Mumbai but has spent his entire working life in Dubai, Canada and the U.S. Explaining the enormity of the operation, Nage said just for the Delhi-Dubai-Delhi sector, he has had to prepare 48 different menus for the year, because the airline follows four menu cycles in a year. In all, Nage has 764 different menus approved and sealed in his lockers for 2014-15, ready to be released for different sectors, in different seasons.
Nimbu pani is now the welcome drink in all flights serving India and Nage is testing different lassis to see how well they adapt to flying conditions. Nage’s colleague, Executive Pastry Chef Thomas Boon, says his team produces 35,000-40,000 muffins a day and only for India, they are all eggless. The only no-no is the Awadhi speciality, nalli gosht — the bones add to the weight of the dish, which is limited by airline regulations to 280 gm, including 120 gm of proteins, for a hot meal.
Will the menu overhaul help Emirates retain its leadership position in India’s outbound air travel market? Certainly, the airline believes it will, but only time will tell how much the market warms up to the gesture.