THAI  FOOD  WITH  AN  ALTITUDE

MANILA
, FEBRUARY 18, 2008, (STAR) CRAZY QUILT By Tanya T. Lara - We’re both Scottish, we both love to cook and we’re both mental,” says chef Colin MacKay at the launch of Philippine Airlines’ Thai Food Festival in the Sky at his People’s Palace restaurant in Greenbelt 3. By “both” he means himself and PAL executive chef Ian McKenzie.

We’re chatting with the two chefs about the difficulties of translating Thai cuisine into airline food, how some ingredients are impossible to source in large quantities, how Ian had to make substitutes with some ingredients and how curry thickens and the oil floats in high altitude.

“My goal was to make him happy because it’s his food,” says Ian.

So was Colin — the brilliant chef of Sala and People’s Palace — happy?

“Nah, he’s never going to be happy, he’s a miserable peasant,” says Ian with a straight face.

Colin laughs and says, “Is it only 15 years?” when Ian alludes to being Colin’s senior by those many years.

The two chefs collaborated for six months for PAL’s Thai food festival. They had never cooked together before except for one Sunday morning at Colin’s house, says Ian. There was no knife-throwing in the kitchen even though they seem to have a knack for knocking each other down with good-natured mockery. Maybe it’s an East Coast (Ian) / West Coast (Colin) of Scotland thing — or maybe, as Ian points out, “Scottish people by nature are dour!”

Well, their amiable relationship certainly produced wonderful cuisine that travelers can look forward to on their flight starting in April this year. Our lunch at People’s Palace was served in in-flight portions and white plates with wave patterns that are used in PAL’s business-class cabin. We started with chef Ian’s selections of tapas and breads, the latter coming with tiny bottles of virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Strangely enough, I find the smell of warm bread during a long-haul flight very comforting, stilling any desire to pull my hair by the roots or poke my eyes as I count down the hours on a very looong flight.

Passengers have tom yung goong (hot and sour prawn soup), followed by a choice of prawn pomelo and chicken salad with coconut dressing or jumbo scallops with green mango and cashew salad. I chose the scallops and they were truly jumbo sitting atop refreshing julienned green mango.

For the main dish, there’s Chilean seabass with three-flavored sauce or aromatic chicken and sweet potato curry. The seabass is wonderfully soft and cooked to perfection with the sauce fighting for your palate’s attention. I polished everything off my plate faster than you can say “fasten your seatbelt.” For dessert, chef Ian has fresh fruit platter with Bizu nirvana cake.

The Thai Food Festival in the Sky runs from April 1 to July 31 on Mabuhay (business) and Fiesta (economy) classes in all international destinations, except for Japan and Korea.

Why not these two countries? Felix J. Cruz, PAL vice president for marketing services, says that because these markets prefer their own local foods. An interesting fact is that for the Japanese market, the flights coming out of Japan usually carry more Pinoy dishes in terms of number of trays than Japanese (perhaps because the Japanese tourists want to try our food before actually touching down in Manila) but the flights going back to Japan have to have more Japanese trays.

Ian describes himself as an “old airline boy,” having been with three other airlines before PAL. Preparing airline food has its own unique challenges, he says. First, because the food does not come straight from the kitchen to your tray table onboard, but is actually cooked and ready between eight and 36 hours before a flight and is simply reheated onboard. And second, some ingredients can go starchy or oily at high altitude.

Ian says, “Colin likes his soup one way, I like it another way. I already told him there’s too much oil in the curry and it will rise up on the aircraft and people will say, ‘Eew, it’s greasy!’ So I had to try and reduce the oil and have just a little bit coming out. But if you serve that same curry in his restaurant people will say, ‘Wow, it’s great.’ On the aircraft people will have a different response.”

Before the Thai festival, he collaborated with Glenda Barretto of Via Mare when PAL held its Filipino festival, with Gene Gonzalez of Café Isabel, and with Tin Hau restaurant of Mandarin Oriental Manila.

PAL runs its food festivals for four months and passengers have always had a positive response to the food. Perhaps maybe because at the end of the day, your own national carrier always knows best what kind of food your palate craves — whether you’re a balikbayan coming home after a 20-year absence or a businessman who spent just three days in Singapore.


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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