Monday, 3 April 2017

Indian Vegetarian Food - Open Letter to all International Airlines

Having travelled millions of miles and thousands of sectors on multiple airlines, in First, Business and Economy classes, around the world and having eaten all kinds of so called “vegetarian meals” made by gourmet and “starred” chefs in all five continents or even better prepared by gourmet Indian chefs and passed off as Indian vegetarian, I have been left, to say the least, disappointed.

A very large number of non-Indian airlines classify Asian Vegetarian and Indian Vegetarian as one and the same. Some even assume that Vegan and Indian Vegetarian is the same. Nothing is further from the truth than these misclassifications. Indians who are Vegetarian are not Vegans. Therefore, they do eat dairy, honey and gelatin products unlike the vegans.

After so many painful meal experiences, I am writing this open letter to international airlines to address some very basic points on what do most Indian Vegetarian travellers like on their food tray, irrespective of the class they may be travelling in, when they travel overseas. 

Milk products

Indian vegetarians eat all kinds of milk products. You do NOT need to give them margarine instead of butter. Yogurt (dahi) is standard fare for all Indians in their homes and does not need to be excluded from our menu. We can eat butter, cream, cakes, brownies, pastries, chocolates and all other similar products made from milk. Your gourmet chefs serve Indian sweets like "Gulab Jamun" and "Ras Malai" in the same food tray from which they have excluded butter!


While Indians eat all green vegetables, aubergine (baingan), Okra (Bhindi) and Squash (Kaddu) are normally not our preferred vegetables. In most homes in India, these vegetables are the "meal of last resort" when all other vegetables are exhausted in the refrigerator. You can use all kinds of beans, cottage cheese (paneer) or even deep-fried "samosas" as appetisers if you need more options to serve us. 

Main Course

We understand the constraints of serving meals on flights and the fact that in economy class you will generally have a vegetarian option and a non-vegetarian option. For special meal requests, you have “Asian Vegetarian” as an option – we do hope that you realise that Asia is a huge continent with almost half the world’s population in 48 countries with many more cuisine options!

Indian vegetarian food, itself, has a huge repertoire of cuisines. Your expert chefs can come up with multiple options. We are happy with Dal and Rajma as one option with rice. We do not want these burnt in the ovens and we definitely do not like "crispy friend basmati rice". Further, yogurt is standard fare in almost every meal in an Indian home. Why must you exclude this from our meal tray?


Most Indians have a very sweet tooth and love their desserts. If you are serving the passengers ice cream or a pastry, give it to the Indian passengers as well. Do not give them poorly made Indian desserts that your master chefs are trying to pass off as "Indian". And of course remember that desserts are eaten after the main course – you do not need to single out vegetarian passengers and give them their dessert with the starter!

Cheese, Paneer and Chocolates

Your chefs forget that cheese is made of milk and Indians eat all milk products. Why remove cheese from our meals when this is a huge value add you can make on our meal trays? If you can serve us chocolates and paneer, then cheese can also be served. Oh, and as a reminder, toufu is not the same as paneer or cheese!


While we like bread rolls, croissants and garlic toast, it always helps if you can also add a roti or a parantha to your bread basket. Rotis are available in various shapes and sizes in most cuisines of the World. Oh yes, just like the love and care your chefs give to make their croissants crisp and flaky on the outside and soft on the inside, our parathas too deserve the same TLC and must not be converted into a crisp papad (or papadam) because of repeated heating!


Packaged pickle in single servings is available everywhere, just like butter and preserves, and many airlines add this to the food tray. Indians like a little pickle with their food but can easily do without it if this adds too much to your food cost.

Mouth Freshener

While not essential, this is an excellent item to round off any and Indian meal and for a vegetarian, this would go a really long way! Mouth fresheners are available in simple and cheap sachets.


While alcohol is not related to Indian vegetarian cuisine, it would help to note that most of the older Indians prefer their whisky. A selection of whiskies and an additional malt whisky for good measure served on flights into and out of India would really earn you serious appreciation.

While most of us are now conscious of eating healthy food while at home, we are happy to give healthy food a "pass" when we are on a flight and when we are on a holiday!

Please do consider what you are serving to the Indian Vegetarian passengers. Indians form one of the fastest growing travellers and tourists in the World and definitely deserve your consideration.

If your culinary experts are not delivering what they are being paid to, reach out to Air India and Jet Airways from India and Singapore Airlines to understand what food they serve to their customers.


The author is the founder Chairman of Guardian Pharmacies and the author of 5 best-selling books, Reboot. Reinvent. Rewire: Managing Retirement in the 21st Century; The Corner Office; An Eye for an Eye; The Buck Stops Here - Learnings of a #Startup Entrepreneur and The Buck Stops Here – My Journey from a Manager to an Entrepreneur.

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