Suited and booted in scrubs, with a stylish hair net and mask to complete the look, I was ready to enter the kitchen at Korean Air’s Catering Centre located at Seoul’s Incheon airport.
I had been invited by the carrier to experience its new Korean-style vegan meals which launched earlier this year, discovering the behind-the-scenes process on land before tasting the menu at 35,000 feet on my return to London Heathrow.
Korean Air has showcased its home cuisine onboard for decades, with the airline’s popular bibimbap dish even receiving a prestigious Mercury Award from the International Flight Catering Association (IFCA) in 1997.
This accolade is proudly on show in the Catering Centre, alongside Korean Air’s awards from previous editions of Business Traveller’s Cellars in the Sky awards – the most recent being its bronze award in the Best First-Class Presented Wine List category of the 2022 edition.
Now the airline is pivoting to the plant-based audience, making Korean gastronomy available to those following vegan diets too, with several other airlines in the industry also heading down this route. Here, we explore the inspiration behind Korean Air’s dishes, the catering process and our verdict on the new menu.
While still a fairly new concept in South Korea, staff explain that the vegan trend is growing across the country, with customers increasingly interested in animal welfare, sustainability and health benefits.
This vegetarian lifestyle is also linked to traditional Korean temple cuisine, a practice which is rooted in Buddhist heritage and dates 1,700 years. Typically the multi-course menu features zero animal products and the use of onion, garlic, chives, green onion or leek is also forbidden – though the Korean Air menu is less strict and thankfully does include these ingredients.
As part of my trip to Seoul I experienced such temple cuisine at Balwoo Gongyang, a restaurant run by the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, which was a source of inspiration for the team at Korean Air.
The airline’s Korean-style vegan menu took approximately a year to create, and is part of the airline’s special inflight meals selection across economy, Prestige (business class) and first class on all international routes from South Korea. This means it must be pre-ordered at least 24 hours before the scheduled departure of the flight.
Unfortunately, this option is not available on flights departing London Heathrow, though a normal vegan meal can still be requested.
First class features the full spread of items while business class customers are offered all but the porridge and salad course. Economy customers, meanwhile, receive a smaller version – see images.
The Korean-style vegan menu rotates every three months, with the first cycle set to finish on May 31. Alongside the menu are various wines, several of which are vegan-friendly – find out more here:
Korean Air launches new wine selection on Seoul Incheon-London route
My disposable outfit was just the first phase of the sanitation process. The next step is to walk through a noisy air chamber, which quite fittingly resembles the interior of a cheese grater, designed to remove hair, dust and so on before you enter the kitchen. Last but not least, you are required to wash and dry your hands, and use hand sanitiser to top it all off.
Spick and span, I joined staff in the kitchen to get a peek at the process.
Ahead of arriving at the catering centre, the dishes are cooked at the carrier’s sister catering centre at Gimpo airport and then transported in refrigerated vans to Incheon airport.
It is here that the meals are portioned, labelled and once again chilled before they are transported to the aircraft in refrigerated vans, ready for heating in the ovens onboard. For those that aren’t familiar with airline catering, staff must abide by strict time schedules given food safety guidelines – hot meals must be consumed within 72 hours and cold meals within 48 hours of preparation. In the case of an afternoon flight, the meal will be prepared the morning of the same day, for instance.
Prior to the pandemic, the catering centre was dishing up 80,000 meals per day for Korean Air as well as 22 other airlines. At the time of writing the facility is creating 44,000 meals daily, though this figure is increasing as the airline’s network ramps up.
I watched as catering staff brought up the meal specs on a screen, which resemble a cookbook recipe with a display photo and measurements, and followed them to the letter, using weighing scales to portion the food and plating them as pictured.
The meals are then covered with foil and marked with the initials “VKML” to identify them as the vegan Korean-style meal. The packaged meals are then transferred to the chilling room and staff set about cleaning the surfaces, ready for the next challenge.
My trip included a tasting on land, followed by the real experience onboard the aircraft on my way home, giving me the chance to compare the two. I was pleased to see that the meals hold up to a cabin setting, with beautifully presented dishes which are generous in size and whose flavours seem largely unaffected by the cabin environment.
The menu begins with canapé-style lightly-roasted yam topped with Korean fermented soybean paste, whose appearance mimicked my neighbour’s scallop appetiser though with a very different texture and taste.
Next up is the starter featuring a square of tofu alongside sesame tofu sandwiched between floral patterned lotus root. This is served with shiitake mushroom, sesame leaves and a flavour-packed, kaleidoscopic plum sauce which boosts the flavour profile of mild tofu. Not only does it enhance the flavour of the ingredients on the plate, but it also visually brings the dish to life, bursting with colour.
In typical Korean fashion, the main course features several dishes, allowing you to enjoy multiple flavours at once. When I saw this on land, it was hard to imagine how the dishes would all fit on the tray table in the air, but thankfully there was no issue and it was all the more special to experience it inflight.
The main focus is the rice with burdock, served with a pot of soy sauce dressing, and the addictive roasted shiitake mushrooms coated in the equally spicy and sweet Gochujang sauce. Meaty in texture, the mushroom dish was my favourite entrée thanks to its great crispy consistency, a result of the vegetable being deep-fried before it is coated in the marinade.
Alongside this is a warming soup with Korean spinach and bean paste; cucumber pickle; seasoned cham namul (a Korean leafy green); honey-roasted mixed nuts; and sheets of seaweed. It’s a great main course which never gets boring thanks to the variation in flavours, and I found myself dipping into each of the dishes in no particular order – though the mushroom dish may have been devoured before the others…
Given the creativity of the rest of the menu, I was slightly disappointed by the dessert course, which is a plate of seasonal fruit. Perhaps this will be updated in the next cycle with something more adventurous.
Passengers also get a second vegan meal during their journey, which was equally tasty and different enough so the flavours didn’t feel repetitive. My second meal consisted of:
- Starter: Korean cabbage and baby spinach salad, served with kimchi and onion pickle
- Main: A vegetarian take on bibimbap, with veggie-packed buckwheat noodles and a Gochujang paste, served with mandu (Korean dumplings) and soy sauce
- Dessert: seasonal fruit
While I was no longer in South Korean airspace, my meal was telling a different story – one that I was happy to savour on the 14+ hour journey home.
As the menu is part of the carrier’s special inflight meals, many passengers are still unaware of the option or perhaps reticent to try it as they are avid meat-eaters. Since April, only 20-30 vegan meals are requested per day across the 80 flights that take place daily.
On my flight I was the only passenger enjoying the meal, though I saw fellow passengers eyeing up my dishes, intrigued by the colourful multi-course options. While the airline’s bibimbap dish is still one of the airline’s most popular dishes, that may change when people discover the delicious vegan alternatives.
The pre-ordering process is very simple. Passengers can request a special inflight meal ahead of checking in via the ‘My Trips’ section of the Korean Air website. Once you select ‘vegetarian meal’, a list of sub-menus will appear, at the top of which is the Korean Vegan Meal.
Guests who do not want the vegan option can also pre-order their meals for the flight, with a range of Korean, Chinese and Western dishes to choose from.
Korean Air will launch its next cycle of vegan meals on June 1, which will run until the end of August. Having enjoyed the first rotation, I’m confident that the next phase will be just as creative and satisfying.