Decent Food at 30,000 Feet, Seriously


By Andrea Nguyen

[Andrea discovers decent airplane food, and converts it to an appealing recipe. – mb)

Airline food is rarely something that you want to replicate at home. On a recent press trip to Asia, though I was treated to business class flights. We kicked off our long-haul back to the States with a 2-hour leg from Hanoi to Hong Kong; it was late morning and I’d breakfasted on pho noodle soup and croissant, thinking that I wouldn’t eat until the afternoon when we reached Hong Kong.

But we were served a full lunch, and I suddenly felt hungry when I got a whiff of the meal that the flight staff was reheating. It smelled comforting — garlic, soy sauce, maybe fish sauce too.As the flight attendant pushed her cart toward my row, I spied stir-fried beef, steamed vegetables, and white rice. The simple preparations looked like heaven to me after days of tight schedules and complicated meals. I was seated in the last row and hoped that the passengers in front of me weren’t gunning for that beef too.

Luckily when the cart arrived, there was stir-fried beef left. It was restorative, tasting like something I would cook at home. Most airline food tends to be bland but this beef had chile heat and lemongrassy bite; the thinly sliced filet was super tender. The clean tasting rice and vegetables were perfect partners for the stir-fry. I was so surprised by how good the beef tasted that I asked my fellow travelers to confirm that I wasn’t out of it. No I wasn’t.

This evening, I recreated the stir-fried beef at home and it was just as delicious as I remembered. The difference is that instead of filet, I used tri-tip steak. There’s no need to use business class-priced ingredients for first class flavors. Very thinly slice the tender heart of the lemongrass stalk or it will be too fibrous to chew. You can mince the lemongrass too. 

Stir-Fried Beef with Lemongrass and Chiles

1 12 ounces beef steak (tri-tip/bottom sirloin, flank, etc.)

1 tablespoon brown sugar

1 tablespoon kecap manis sweet soy sauce or dark soy sauce

1 tablespoon fish sauce

About 1/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon cornstarch

2 tablespoons canola oil

1/2 medium red onion, thinly sliced

3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2 Fresno or cayenne chiles, thinly sliced

1 stalk lemongrass, trimmed and very thinly sliced on diagonal or minced

1 large scallion, green part only, thinly sliced on diagonal 

1. Thinly slice the beef across the grain into bite-size pieces. Combine the sugar, soy sauce, fish sauce, salt, and cornstarch. Pour over the beef and massage with your hands. Set aside to marinate for 15 minutes. 

2. Heat the oil in a wok or large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion, garlic, chile, and lemongrass. Stir-fry for 1 to 2 minutes, until soft and fragrant. Bank the aromatics. Add the beef, spreading it out to one layer. Let it sear for a minute, then stir-fry it for another 2 minutes, or until cooked through.  

3. Taste for salt before adding the scallion. Cook for another 15 seconds until the scallions soften. Transfer to a serving plate. Enjoy with rice. Add a simple stir-fried or boiled vegetable and you’re done. 


Posted in Chinese, Travel


  1. Anonymous said...

    I was knocked out by the food on a Virgin Atlantic flight from London to LAX last summer too (see Proof positive that it is possible, and certainly goes a long way towards airline loyalty in my book. Love this recipe – mouth is watering just thinking about the ingredients. Thank you for tonight’s dinner!

  2. Roland said...

    This recipe is crackin!

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