September 1999

What's the bread roll doing here?




Americans may think it churlish of me to criticise airline food aboard Asian carriers, when on many American flights, there's no food at all. But, really, I'm not criticising the food. I just think airline food offers a window into the issue of cultural tensions, between East and West.

I was aboard an Asian airline when dinner was served. "Fish or chicken?" the stewardess asked. I asked for fish; my neighbour chose chicken. I got fish fillet, steamed white rice and some sauce. I'm never keen on white rice. My neighbour had chicken on a bed of noodles. I wanted the noodles. I hailed the stewardess again, and asked to change.

I told myself, this little inconvenience was completely unnecessary, if only they stopped pretending to be Westerners. When serving Asian food, describe them in Asian, not Western terms.

In most Western (Anglo-saxon?) main courses, the meat is central, and for quick reference, it is enough to name the meat, and perhaps say a little about how it was prepared. Asian main courses are more complex. The meat is not central, it is usually just a topping. The carbohydrate base is at least as important, whether its rice, one of the many types of noodles, or one of the many Asian forms of breads. In deciding on our orders, Asians think in terms of the base, and then the topping. For the stewardess to announce just the meat, "Fish or chicken?", is to give the passenger too little information to go by.

She should have said, at the very least, "noodles with chicken, or rice with fish?" Notice the Asian construction: the carbohydrate base is primary, the meat is the secondary mention. (It's quite similar to Italian, "pizza with ham and cheese, or fettuccine with clams?")

Why do Asian airlines behave like this? Why do they offer Asian food and speak Western? They're torn between catering to the East and aping the West.

* * * * *

A generation ago, only white men flew, and anyway, Asian airlines imported their operating systems from their more established Western counterparts. So Asian airlines copied from the West and served Western culture to their Western clientele.

Even when the first few Asians began boarding flights, it was still important to offer Western culture during the flying experience. Western culture had prestige; Asian would have been low class. And so for a long while, the airlines kept their Western practices.

The clientele have since changed completely. That flight with the noodles/rice problem had, as far as I could see, 100% Asian passengers. Nowadays, on Asian routes, Whites seldom make up more than 10% of passenger load.

The airlines have realised that while it's all very well for the Asian passenger to enjoy a Western ambiance during a flight, if he can't stomach Western food, he can't stomach Western food. So as Asian passenger counts increased, the airlines accommodated and began to serve Asian main courses.

But change seems to have stopped there.

They still announce the dish in (meaningless) Western terms. The classier ones still offer a Western wine to accompany the (Asian) meal, when it's such a cultural oxymoron. I'd rather they served Chinese tea instead. And that flight I was on, the bread roll sitting dejectedly next to the chicken noodles had nothing to do, except to mock the airline for all their half-hearted efforts at change. I mean, who needs bread and butter when having a plate of noodles or rice?

I looked around the cabin, and like me, just about everybody else didn't touch the bread roll. What a waste of food. And aviation fuel carrying the thing.

I raised my hand and signalled the stewardess again. "Could I have a pair of chopsticks for my noodles?"

"Oh, sorry, sir, we have no chopsticks."

"You don't carry chopsticks on board?"

"No, we don't."

Meanwhile, the Korean woman across the aisle struggled to fork her rice. There was no spoon.

* * * * *

Some might call this situation a kind of Western cultural imperialism. It isn't an accurate description. Years ago, of course, western dominance of the media and management did indeed serve to implant the notion that the Western style of doing things was the only respectable way to go. Then, airlines, through their white managers, or technical and training consultants brought in from Europe and America, set up their cutlery of fork and knife, boasted of their fillet mignon and taught their staff to say, "Beef or lamb?", "Red wine or white?"

But today, Asian airlines are run by Asian executives, and for such idiosyncrasies to exist despite serving Vegetarian Fried Udon or Hainanese Chicken Rice, (but with neither chopsticks nor spoons) is nothing but organisational and intellectual laziness on the part of highly-paid Asian managers.

Yawning Bread 



  1. There are exceptions among Asian airlines. Singapore Airlines hands out to passengers a multilingual printed menu well before the meal cart comes around. The menu describes the meal choices in detail. Eva Air (from Taiwan) is one airline that routinely provides chopsticks.
  2. Oct 1999: I flew on Swissair this month - and noticed that they had chopsticks on board. Shame on the Asian airlines that do not!