Would You Eat Grasshoppers at 35,000 Feet?
When Ugandan vendor Paul Mubiru boarded a flight from the nation’s capital Kampala bound for Dubai and began enthusiastically selling nsenene – or grasshoppers – to other passengers in November, he was applauded and criticised in equal measure.
It was an incident more commonly seen on a roadside than a plane full of international travellers which certainly caused a buzz in the East African country of Uganda. The actions of Mubiru and Hajib Kiggundu Hajib, a fellow vendor whose recording of Mubiru hawking the seasonal delicacy devoured by Ugandans every year went viral on TikTok, may land the pair seven years of jail time.
But following the debacle aboard Uganda Airlines, the carrier said that they were considering offering the insects on future flights to “bring Ugandan culture to the world”. Whether the carrier will begin serving grasshoppers or this was just a clever PR spin remains to be seen. If and when they do, it will be upon request and served as a snack depending on availability, the airline’s public relations and corporate affairs manager Shakila Lamar tells Trippin. But the incident begs the questions: who and what determines ‘international cuisine’?
Dishing up culture in the form of food at 35,000 feet can be a great way to begin breaking down barriers, says Ugandan-American travel blogger and brand influencer Jessica Nabongo. She remembers her father bringing home nsenene from Uganda, otherwise known as the “Pearl of Africa”, to the US much to the family’s delight. The first Black woman to travel to every country in the world Nabongo insightfully picked up on the ways in which culture is diluted to cater to the preferences of populations in the West. In her words “In terms of the larger question of who gets to determine what an international food is, we already know the answer to that, right? We know that it's Europe and the US. There’s this global dominance.”
Many airlines recognise that food is an opportunity to distinguish themselves, but up in the air there’s a different reality, says Charles Platkin, director of the Hunter College NYC Food Policy Centre. The centre develops intersectoral, innovative and evidence-based solutions to prevent diet-related diseases and promote food security. Safety trumps taste, points out Platkin. “The food and beverage coordinator (for an airline) has a lot of power, whereas the safety coordinator can shut a plane down,” he says. “An airline focuses on not crashing.”
“In terms of the larger question of who gets to determine what an international food is, we already know the answer to that, right? We know that it's Europe and the US. There’s this global dominance.” - Jessica Nabongo
Edible insects also have to be approved to be fit for human consumption, stresses Arnold Van Huis, a Professor of tropical entomology, or the study of insects, at the Netherlands’ Wageningen University and author of The Insect cookbook. Late last year the EU approved one grasshopper species – the more edible locusta migratoria – as opposed to other species. “Issues of quality, safety, sourcing, storage, preparation are some of the things that we are looking into,” Lamar says, stressing that Uganda Civil Aviation Authority (UCAA) determines quality and safety issues for Uganda Airlines.
Many airlines seem reluctant to speak about how they decide what goes on the menu, but Platkin says that “a lot of it is about price.” A retired transport pilot with 14 years’ flying experience, five of those with an international carrier who did not want to be named, but also told Trippin that cost may be the ultimate decision maker. “From an operational perspective, in my experience, it’s usually whatever is the cheapest whilst also meeting nutritional (calorific) requirements (that is served),” he says. “So often we would see lots of sugary crap being offered to crews purely because it’s cheaper to provide sugar than complex carbohydrates.”
With culture not getting much of a look in, Nabongo points out that she’s eaten mostly European or American food onboard. But carriers outside these regions have already been offering primarily non-western food to travellers because they’ve always focused on their regional clientele, she says.
“It’s really Europe and the US that has to catch up, which they should (do) because they are incredibly diverse so there shouldn’t be this fear of ‘oh well people’s palates won’t take it’ or ‘we don’t want it to be too spicy’’,” Nabongo says. “I think, why can't American or European palates try something that they're unfamiliar with? If you're putting someone from Uganda on KLM, and you're serving them herring or (something) Dutch, why should their palate have to adjust to that, instead of a Dutch palate adjusting to something that's Ugandan, some matooke?” Nabongo uses plantain as an example of a Ugandan staple suited to most palettes. But the travel blogger admits that she is witnessing somewhat of a cultural awakening. Recently, en route from Dakar, the capital of Senegal, to New York via Delta Air Lines, Nabongo was surprised to find West African favourite jollof rice with yassa chicken on the menu, “It was pretty good,” she says.
Delta offers “uniquely crafted menu items that reflect regional flavours” on both international and domestic trips, says Emily Cashdan, the carrier’s corporate communications manager. On flights from South Africa to the US, passengers can enjoy dishes like beef stew with jollof, fried plantains and sautéed spinach, or Malay chicken curry with coconut rice and ginger-infused French green beans. “The menus vary by region and Delta works with local caterers to curate the dishes we serve,” Cashdan says.
In terms of other airlines, in 2019 Air France served African cuisine for Africa Day, marked on May 25. “Given the amount of Africans in France, you would think that could happen more regularly,” Nabongo recalls, “But I definitely think there’s a (general) shift that’s happening and I applaud it.” Air France- KLM did not respond to a request for comment from Trippin.
Japan Airlines (JAL) meanwhile uses inflight meals to promote the preservation of food culture and connect with their diverse community of passengers using traditional cooking methods. Their menus are developed by an inflight meal planning and development team, a cabin attendant and local ground staff, with the support of supervisory and corporate chefs. Dishes such as grilled tofu and umami chicken miso with gomoku rice (mixed rice), Sichuan-style boiled beef, and fermented foods such as miso and pickles have all featured on their menus. “We strive to offer a wide range of options while incorporating food trends” says Saori Coster, a JAL EMEA global marketing manager. The airline explains that it wants to achieve this through environmental, social and corporate governance (ESCG) management, with a greater focus on preserving the environment, contributing to building an equal society by promoting diversity and inclusion, and improving accessibility.
“It’s really Europe and the US that has to catch up, which they should (do) because they are incredibly diverse so there shouldn’t be this fear of ‘oh well people’s palates won’t take it’ or ‘we don’t want it to be too spicy’’.” - Jessica Nabongo
Other smaller, domestic carriers are also shaping perceptions of their country’s cuisine through their food offerings. Air North, a Canadian airline based in Whitehorse, Yukon, which flies between the country’s northwest territories and British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario, makes meals in its own flight kitchen in Whitehorse which was built in 2005, says Michael Bock, the manager of catering and cabin services. He points out that they’re the only airline in Canada to have their own flight kitchen, which is unique to the aviation industry and gives Air North control over what is served to passengers. The company, which is 49 per cent First Nations owned, says its most popular dish is its bison shepherd’s pie. But they also offer lobster mac and cheese, and Thai chicken curry to reflect the nation’s strong Asian influence. “Where you see so many different cultures integrating different meals together, you can pretty well do a spin on anything,” says Bock, “I think Canadian cuisine has developed so much that it's almost an international cuisine now.”
Currently, Uganda Airlines serves mainly rice, fish, pasta, potatoes, eggs and beef for a mix of tourists, business people, students, government officials and conference exhibitors from the country, region and overseas. Taking pride of place on its menu and exciting many passengers is the street food dish rolex – an egg omelette with vegetables in chapati flatbread - served to economy travellers. Next month, they’ll extend this to business class customers. “Our passengers love it”, Lamar says of the wrap, which is accompanied by nyanya mbisi (raw tomatoes). Uganda Airlines – which relaunched in 2019 – is confident of the positive impact of adding a taste of Uganda to the menu with the potential introduction of grasshoppers which have been eaten for centuries in Africa, piquing the interest of adventurous passengers and foodies.
There is now some excitement on the streets of Kampala at the prospect of international jet setters discovering nsenene – even among those who have never set foot on a plane, such as Joseph Mirimu who sells the insects both downtown and to expats living overseas. “What can I compare them with? I don’t know because they are so sweet, so nice,” says Mirimu. “(They are) so precious to Ugandans…You may find so many people (in European markets) enjoy them.”
“One of the purposes of food is to open new worlds for people everywhere”, says Jonathan Kabugo, a Ugandan who lives in Kampala and the author of Food That Grew Us: A Ugandan Local Food Showcase. “We don’t have a lot of things being taken up by other countries or being added to menus outside Uganda,” he continues, “African cuisine, like most of our culture, is generally looked down on for lacking sophistication, so when an item does beat those odds, it’s gratifying.”