As the number of tourists flying to Korea has surged, Korea's flagship airlines have begun to see in-flight service as another way to promote local culture and be part of the Korean Wave.
On Korean Air flights, bibimbap (rice with an assortment of seasonal vegetables) has been a huge hit since it was first served in 1998, with 60 percent of passengers on medium- and long-haul flights deciding to try it. Since then, the airline has expanded its selection to include other Korean dishes such as galbijjim (steamed short ribs), japchae (cellophane noodles with thinly sliced beef and a variety of vegetables) and naengmyeon (cold noodles).
It also began offering its own spin on traditional Korean dishes such as dongchimi-guksu (noodles in watery radish kimchi broth) and yeongyangbap (steamed grains and rice) in November.
Meanwhile, Asiana Airlines has taken its menu to a different level with fusion foods that mix Korean and Western elements. Some dishes on offer include steak with kimchi and bacon-wrapped kimchi.
◆ Domestic Airlines
Asiana Airlines tried out kimchi stew on flights last year, and due to the enthusiastic reception, the dish will now be served to first-class passengers on Incheon-Frankfurt flights from next month. It may soon be available on flights bound for New York and Los Angeles as well.
"We came up with kimchi stew as passengers want to eat something spicy due to the low pressure during flights," said Baek Seon-cheol, a chief purser at Asiana Airlines.
To prepare varied in-flight menus, Korean Air samples dishes hundreds of times before serving them to passengers, while Asiana Airlines has partnered with well-known chefs and restaurants. Their efforts to offer unique menus have had great success.
Korean Air won prizes at the prestigious Mercury Awards organized by the International Travel Catering Association for its bibimbap and bibimguksu (spicy mixed noodles). The airline was also recognized for its meal service by China's biggest travel magazine World Traveller.
Asiana also won at the Mercury Awards for its meals.
◆ Foreign Airlines
The focus on in-flight meals isn't just limited to Korean airlines, and foreign carriers are joining the competition to attract profitable business- and first-class passengers. Singapore Airlines, for instance, has an advisory panel of global chefs, including Britain's Gordon Ramsey, to study different tastes of people around the world.
Etihad Airways of the United Arab Emirates invited Michelin-recognized chefs to serve meals directly to first-class passengers. Cathay Pacific became the first carrier to equip its carriers with electric rice cookers and frying pans to offer quick dishes like toast and eggs.
"In-flight meals are one of the most important factors when passengers evaluate airlines' service quality," an industry insider said. "Airlines will keep trying to develop in-flight meals to provide unbeatable service to passengers."