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What to Know about Service, Food When Flying Internationally

July 22, 2013

NBAA Flight Plan podcast on food service when flying internationally.

Scenario: You are in the midst of a trip to Asia when you’re tasked to fly Chinese passengers on a long leg that includes a meal.

Question: Does your crew know how to accommodate your guests in a way that best represents the company? The scenario was offered by Paula Kraft of Tastefully Yours Catering, who also chairs the Catering Subcommittee of the NBAA Flight Attendants Committee.

“You want to keep from being embarrassed with passengers who expect you to know different things about their culture,” Kraft explained.

At a recent NBAA Flight Attendants Conference in Washington, DC, a seminar on international cuisine and customs entitled “Around the World in 20 Minutes” drew a standing-room only crowd. NBAA Member Companies are increasingly flying to the destinations covered in the seminar: Brazil, Russia, India and China – or “BRIC” countries – and the session provided an overview of what passengers from those countries might expect in terms of food offered and service provided.


“The number-one thing flight attendants should know about feeding their passengers in Brazil is that Brazil has amazing regional dishes,” said Richard Peterson, general manager of Air Culinaire Worldwide’s kitchen in Tampa, FL. Certainly, you can find cuisine suitable for American and European tastes [comma needed]which may not be so adventurous, he said, but if you or your passengers are willing to try some of the indigenous dishes, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at both the variety and quality.

“It’s always good to learn more about the passengers before a trip. Have they been to Brazil before? Do they have a dish they’ve already tried and enjoyed? Are they the type who would want to sample a regional specialty such aspato no tucupi – which is roasted wild duck simmered in a broth made from the fermented manioc root and served with white rice and braised native greens called jambu – or are they a meat and potatoes type? Either way, they can’t go wrong, as Brazil is known for its high quality beef, 97 percent of which is grass fed,” Peterson said.

“In Brazil, like in most of the Romance language countries, eating is more of a social gathering and things may move a bit slower than your passengers are used to in the United States,” Peterson advised. “Brazilians also tend to eat more fresh fruits than do citizens of the U.S.”


“Russian passengers will expect the Zakuska, a buffet-style apero (pre-dinner service) immediately after take-off,” said Nicola Hubert of Hubert-Marsden Catering in Zurich, Switzerland. “Russians love cold meats, sausages, smoked fish, seafood, pickles, salads, grilled vegetables, sauerkraut, pat├ęs, rye bread, blinis, or salmon roe with lots of sour cream or cottage cheese.”

Almost half – 41-percent – of Russians are Orthodox Christians, Hubert said. They might fast 40 days before Easter and 40 days before Christmas (with the days involved being those according to the Julian Calendar, not the Gregorian Calendar).

“During Maslenitsa, the ‘Cheesefare’ Week (or, the Week before Great Lent), passengers might appreciate only blinis with sour cream or cottage cheese,” Hubert pointed out. Meat and fish are not permitted during that week.

Instead, vegan cuisine is required during those 80 days of the year, although shellfish is allowed[comma needed] and sometimes fish is allowed on weekends. A good practice is to check with passengers before you order your catering.


In India, many religions exist side-by-side[comma needed] and therefore have often influenced Indian cuisine. However, the most dominant religions to influence the cuisine are Hinduism and Islam, said Kraft.

The Hindu tradition is largely vegetarian.

“However, even for those who do eat meat, Hindus avoid beef,” she said. Sikhs also do not eat beef.

The Muslim tradition is largely known for cooking meat dishes such as korma, biryani and rogan josh. Muslim meat dishes should be prepared with halal meat (meat from an animal slaughtered according to strict Islamic law). In addition, the Koran excludes Muslims from eating pork and drinking alcohol.

Lamb, chicken and seafood are meats that any Indian meat eaters will consume.

“But remember, it is important to keep the vegetarian and meat dishes on separate tables,” Kraft said.

“The flight attendant must provide the means to wash hands before passengers begin to eat,” Kraft offered. “Passengers will also want to wash their hands again at the end of the meal.”

The honored guest sits on the side of the table farthest from the door, she said. The honored guest is also served first, followed by the oldest man, then the rest of the men, children and women – in that order.


For Chinese diners, dishes are served by even numbers, such as eight, 12 or 16 dishes. Cold food comes first. The Chinese place-setting typically includes a rice or soup bowl, a small plate for the main courses, a small dish for condiments and sauces, a dessert dish, a porcelain spoon, a pair of chopsticks and chopstick rest.

“Forks and knives are becoming commonplace settings, and can be used without causing offense or losing face,” Kraft said.

There should be a serving spoon or serving chopsticks for each dish. Cold dishes are usually placed on the small plate. At a banquet, rice is usually served at the end, before dessert, and is not an accompaniment to the other dishes as done in Western societies.

In Chinese cooking, almost everything except rice is served in one huge bowl. Everyone eats out of this bowl with chopsticks. Chinese chopsticks are the same size on each end whereas Japanese chopsticks have one end sharper than the other.

“Seating passengers in the right order is particularly important,” said Kraft. In China, the prestige of the company and the importance you place on your guests is judged by the caliber of the seating space provided.

In China it is the custom to offer seats to guests according to their seniority. When you invite Chinese passengers onto your aircraft[comma needed] the hosts should sit on the side of the table closest to the entrance. Chinese visitors should sit facing the door at the opposite side of the table, which indicates that they are the most important passengers aboard the aircraft. The host should show the Chinese passengers to the side of the table at which they are invited to sit. Usually, guests will then seat themselves in order. It is customary for the most senior person to sit at the middle of the table with the interpreter next to him/her.