HEN an airplane is about to reach cruising altitude, a savoury smell wafts through the cabin.
In-flight meals add delight to air travel. A Yomiuri Shimbun reporter recently visited a facility at Kansai Airport, on an island in Osaka Bay, Japan, to learn how these meals are prepared.
UP TO 10,000 MEALS A DAY
Fried rice is tossed into the air from a huge frying pan while minced onions and carrots are poured into a large pot.
"One more passenger will be flying business class. We'll have a total of 12 people in that class." An announcement alerts staff that they will have to prepare additional dishes.
AAS Catering employs about 30 cooks and has contracts with 30 passenger airlines and four cargo plane carriers. It prepares about 10,000 meals a day at peak periods and is capable of providing up to 25,000 meals.
The dispatch room gives directions to the staff in the kitchen, which is about 350 sq m.
It takes orders around the clock from airline companies until the very last minute before a departure and relays the orders to the kitchen floor.
Operating on a precise schedule is a priority in the airline business. There are times when AAS staff raise their voices as they press each other to make sure they meet the deadline for last-minute orders.
Menus differ by airline.
For the same flight, AAS prepares two kinds of main dishes for economy class and three to four types for business class plus many more items for first class, where multi-course meals are served.
"Long flights need two meals as well as a snack," said Taisei Tanaka, 57, the kitchen's head chef.
Orders reflect the national backgrounds of airline companies, he added.
Some airlines from South-east Asian countries that prefer spicy food order AAS to use specific spice brands. European airlines are particular about the texture of baguettes.
AAS also prepares low-salt or low-calorie menus to order.
Meals for Muslims in particular must conform to strict rules.
The company has obtained halal certification, the first domestic in-flight meal provider in Japan to do so. The firm prepares special cookware and employs Muslim chefs.
"The flight destinations and passengers' nationalities affect the type of orders too," said Mr Tanaka.
I saw a cook put a long, thin probe into a meal.
He was checking the temperature at the centre of the food.
This is done to ensure that every meal is sufficiently heated to kill bacteria based on the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point, the global standard of food safety.
However, overheating will dry out the food so fan-assisted steam ovens are used to avoid this.
Taking into account the process of heating food aboard a plane is vital. Said Mr Tanaka: "The key is to cook the food so it reaches the desired succulence at the time it's served."
After the meals are cooked, they are immediately chilled in a refrigerator to reduce the risk of food poisoning. Disinfectant spray bottles are placed in every corner of the kitchen.
Since the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in 2011, all foods undergo radiation inspections.
Meals are taken to aircraft by catering trucks.
"Once in the sky, it becomes difficult to deal with serious illness.
Airline meals, in that sense, are the ultimate in safety-conscious cuisine," Mr Tanaka explained.
The introduction of low-cost carriers has sparked fierce competition in the business.
It has forced meal providers to pursue quality while trying to reduce costs.
The cost of burning kitchen waste is 80 yen (97 Singapore cents) per kg on the airport island.
AAS tries to reduce waste by purchasing ready-cut vegetables and dehydrating food waste for use as fertiliser.
As a result, it succeeded in slashing daily waste output by 90 per cent from the 1.5 tonnes it used to produce when the airport opened in 1994.
What's more, you do not have to be on a flight to get a taste of airline meals at Kansai Airport.
Simply head to The Legend of Concorde restaurant on the third floor.
There, you can order a la carte and set course meals that are normally served to first class passengers at 10,300 yen per person, and 6,200 yen for business class meals.
There, you can also watch planes landing and taking off while you dine like a high flyer.