Do religion-based meals strictly adhere to their respective dietary laws?
We Indians and our neighbours around us and in the middle-east, celebrate food as sustenance from the Lord. In turn, we celebrate our Lord by giving thanks with the food he has given us. However, some foods are off-limits to us, depending on the paths to the Lord we follow, either by us being a Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Jain or all or none.
When we leave home and travel to different lands, our concern for food is heightened. Some of us may question everything, Some avoid everything. Yet, others will pay no mind.
For decades, airlines from across the world have provided meals catering to individual dietary requirements. Meals based on religious dietary requirements include Kosher (KSML) and Kosher Snack (KSMLS), Muslim (MOML), Hindu (HNML) and Jain (JNML) meals.
Religion-based meals become an issue when airlines fail to fully understand their specific requirements. Even if airlines claim to fully comply, it is still unclear if the food served is certified by respective faith-based monitoring authorities.
In this post, I shall attempt to describe the different kinds of special meals Indian travellers can request while booking. I shall also highlight some problems and issues that arise concerning these meals.
No Airline can guarantee fulfilling individual dietary requirements 100%. It is up to us passengers to take some burden of due diligence if we are being serious about it.
Moslem meal (MOML)
The very name and spelling itself evokes ire among many Muslims today. Some have petitioned to urge the IATA to rename it Halal Meal in order to be more inclusive. However, calling a meal 'Halal' will cause more confusion and problems, especially today
By Qur'anic definition, all meals offered on all flights are halal until there is evidence of alcohol, pork-products or meat from any animal or bird that has not been sacrificed according to the Islamic ritual.
By this definition, all vegetarian and seafood meals are Halal for Muslim passengers to enjoy, (as long as alcohol was not used in their preparation)
Halal-certified meals are offered on airlines operating from most Muslim majority countries of North Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and East Asia. These meals are made with halal slaughtered chicken or beef and prepared and served according to local flavours.
India's flag carrier, Air India states that "All non-vegetarian meals are suitable for Muslims and are prepared in accordance with Halal method." [source]. This has, however, created controversy and confusion, which I will discuss further below.
The increased costs of Halal in most western countries discourage airlines from serving halal-certified meals. Therefore, they will go with the basic definition of Halal and serve vegetarian or seafood meals (void of alcohol) for passengers requesting the Muslim Meal (MOML).
Secondly, Muslims themselves cannot agree on what is considered Halal. While all Muslims agree on hand-slaughtered halal meat, some will strictly avoid machine-slaughtered halal.
There is also a never-ending debate on animal-derived products such as gelatin, rennet and whey from non-halal slaughtered animals. Some say these individual products are Halal while others will avoid everything non-zabiha.
With such differences amongst Muslims themselves, foreign airlines would rather avoid the halal certification route altogether.
If you requested a Moslem (MOML) Meal when booking your trip, you need to remain diligent if you are serious about Halal. Ask questions and read all label and ingredients. After all, those treats and snacks distributed to all passengers sometimes may contain an ingredient that may not agree with you.
Hindu Meal (HNML)
While it is widely perceived that Hindus are vegetarians, (thanks to Bollywood and India's top politicians), a little over the majority of Hindus (about 53%) are non-vegetarians.
Non-Vegetarian Hindus prefer poultry, seafood, goat, and lamb as their sources of meat. Most Hindus will, however, avoid beef and pork due to the cow being considered a motherly animal and the pig being considered unclean.
The Hindu Meal (HNML) served by airlines is non-vegetarian. It will contain either lamb or chicken as an entree. But it will not contain any beef or pork. This is where it ends.
Hinduism and Sikhism prescribed method for killing an animal that is intended to be consumed. This method, called Jhatka, calls for the killing of the animal or bird, instantly, in one swift blow.
Are airlines serving their passengers Jhatka meat in their Hindu Meals then?
Unfortunately, the answer to the above question is an overwhelming negative.
On its website, India's flag carrier Air India, when describing their Moslem Meal (MOML) states that "All non-vegetarian meals are suitable for Muslims and are prepared in accordance with Halal method." [source].
Would then, Air India's Hindu Meal (HNML), which contains lamb or chicken, not be slaughtered by Jhatka? Is the Hindu Meal in Air India actually Halal?
Halal meat is considered the opposite of Jhatka. An animal dies instantly with Jhatka and is considered not to have suffered even for a moment. An animal slaughtered the Halal or Kosher method has its throat slit and is then left to fight for its life until all the blood is drained.
Halal meat is considered Kutha by Sikh scholars and thus prohibited for the Khalsa.
Air India's statement has created confusion and controversy. There are campaigns amongst the Sikh and the Hindu communities to get Air India to clarify it's a stance. Petitions to the Prime Minister of India have also been circulated to get the Hindu Meal (HNML) inline with Hindu and Sikh beliefs.
Vegetarian Jain Meal (VJML) or Jain Meal (JNML)
The Jain Meal is the only religion-based meal offered by airlines that is strictly vegan. Jains are lacto-vegetarians and will not have any form of meat or eggs. Additionally, Jains do not eat vegetables that grow underground such as onions, potatoes, carrots, beets and radishes. Mushrooms and other fungi are also avoided.
The codes VJML and JNML are used interchangeably among airlines and there is no difference between them
Jain meals are cooked in Indian spices and are thus aromatic and flavourful especially when compared to the Vegan (VGML) Meal. You can expect a serving of Dal-Chawal or Chhole-parathe as the main entree with fruit for dessert. A bread roll, butter and a cup of yogurt are also commonly found in Jain Meals.
One would expect that with such simplistic requirements, Jain Meals should have little to no controversy. However, that may not be the case with some airlines.
Passengers have caught onions and garlic being used and served with Jain meals. Airline insensitivities have gone as far as labelling Jain Meals and Asian Vegetarian meals as one.
Again, we must do our part to educate companies if we are serious about our dietary requirements and expect others to reciprocate in the same manner.
Asian Vegetarian Meal (AVML)
Indian passengers from around the world frequently request an Asian Vegetarian (AVML) Meal when booking their trips. It is only a formality for travel agents to ask their Indian clients, "Meal, Asian Veggie ?" as they would have already put it down.
The Asian Vegetarian Meal does not contain any meat or eggs. It may accompany dairy in the form of yogurt or as one of the ingredients in the meal. It is cooked Indian-style with strong tasting herbs and spices in ghee or oil.
The Asian Vegetarian (AVML) Meal includes a dish of either potato, peas or other vegetables with paneer or tofu. This will be accompanied by rice, naan or paratha, a side salad and water. Some airlines may also include a Samosa or a spicy Puri. The accompanying dessert could be an eggless cake, gulab jamun or a carrot halwa.
Some people choose an Asian Vegetarian Meal (AVML) because it re-heats well. The aroma of the spices fills the air around you when you open the heated meal for the first time, much to the envy of your fellow passengers.
Unfortunately, there have been occasions where airlines failed to deliver. One reviewer, who requested an Asian Vegetarian Meal was served a vegetarian meal, void of any Asian flavour!
Other times, passengers on red-eye flights who'd enjoyed their vegetarian dinner the night before, would wake up shocked, finding a breakfast of eggs and sausage in front of them.
Airlines cannot guarantee a wholesome experience based on your dietary requirements. If you are strict about your diet, then we passengers also need to be diligent when handed out treats and snacks given to all passengers. Read the labels and the ingredients list to see if it is clear of any items you may not agree with.
This post would be incomplete if I did not discuss Kosher Airline Meals, which began to first appear in the 1960s for orthodox Jewish travellers. But where does Kosher fit amongst Indians? Read on to find out.
A look at India's relationship with Judaism
India has had a long history with Jews, who first settled in Cochin in 562 BCE. They trace their ancestry to the traders of Solomon. A lost tribe of Bene Israel has resided in Mumbai and another tribe of Bene Menashe have made Manipur and Mizoram home since the time of Jesus Christ.
The imperial colonization of India beginning the 17th century brought Jews from Europe. These Jews were Sephardic (Iberian) and they eventually settled in the urban centres of Bombay, Madras and Calcutta. Their synagogues (which mostly sit empty), exist all over India to this day.
Jewish Migration to India peaked in the 1940s but after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, most made Aliyah and left India forever.
There are over 70,000 Jews of Indian origin who live in Israel. A further 50,000 economic migrants from India and Pakistan also work for Israel's High-tech companies and in the Healthcare sector.
Around than 80,000 Indians visit Israel every year to holiday and pilgrimage in the Holy Land.
The Kosher Meal (KSML) experience
Kosher Meals (KSML) are the most commonly requested special meal on airlines, even amongst non-Jewish passengers who believe it to be cleaner and healthier. Because kosher food containers and their content are handled together with non-kosher food in non-kosher areas, these meals come double-wrapped.
Kosher meals are also the most expensive amongst all special meals, costing almost twice as much. However, some airlines are known to cut costs and serve sub-standard kosher food on short and mid-haul flights. The complaints are aplenty.
If you are flying an airline that flies to Israel or one that serves a significant number of Jewish passengers every year, then there should be little to no problem requesting their kosher meals which are fulfilling and satisfying.
The flag carrier of Israel, El-Al, not only has Kosher meals as standard, but it also provides options for requesting meals that are Glatt Kosher (animals without any defect in their lungs) or Kosher l'Mehadrin, a more strict level of kosher.
However, requesting a Kosher meal can be problematic with an airline that does not serve a significant number of Jewish Passengers, or worse, originating from a country, that is also hostile with Israel. Meals on these flights may comply with Kashrut, but they are in no way certified.
I once requested a Kosher Meal (KSML) on an Etihad flight between Toronto and Abu Dhabi, just to explore what I get. (Note that the UAE does not recognize the existence of Israel). At dinner time, the flight attendant came up to me said they couldn't find my meal and asked me if I would like to have their standard (halal certified) meal of either chicken, beef or fish. I complied and happily ate what was offered and soon went to sleep.
On the return flight, a box was suddenly dropped on to my tray. It was double wrapped and barely included a serving of raw vegetables and dip. I was bewildered because not only I had forgotten about my "special meal request", but it was nothing like a meal I had anticipated.
Kashrut is never simple. Any food that undergoes cooking or processing even if it is plant-based, such as boiled rice or steamed vegetables needs to be Kosher certified. The easiest route to bypass any kosher authority would be, therefore, to serve unprocessed fruits and vegetables in their natural state or raw.
My wife took pity on me and shared her delicious Asian Vegetarian meal (AVML) with me. She also broke open for me a box of biscuits and other snacks we had packed in our carry on.
Other Widely Available Meal Options
If your choice of a faith-based meal is unavailable when booking your flight, you may have to choose differently. I have only discussed a select few meals below that may be suitable for the Indian masses.
The vegan meal is suitable for vegetarians who also do not eat animal byproducts like dairy and eggs. The vegan meal includes rice, beans and lentils as the main entree, along with raw salad on the side.
A selection of fruits may be served as dessert. Some airlines will take the effort to include a vegan dessert such as coconut rolled dates, or a jelly dessert.
Vegetarian Oriental (VOML)
This is a vegan meal that is prepared Oriental style. It includes a selection of steamed vegetables, rice or noodles, a bread roll, a selection of fruit and a jelly dessert.
Vegetarian Lacto-Ovo (VLML)
This is a Vegetarian Meal that will also contain eggs and dairy products. Here, you will discover a variety of options from airline to airline. This meal may either include pasta or rice with vegetables cooked in a sauce. You may find a savoury or sweet pastry on the side, along with a selection of fruit, cheese and dessert.
Raw Vegetable (RVML)
This is a meal of unprocessed fruits and vegetables in their natural state: washed and cut. It includes a salad of raw vegetables: tomato, lettuce, onion, celery, carrot, cucumber or lemon. You may find a selection of fruits for dessert on the side.
Fruit Platter (FPML)
A fruit platter is intended for passengers who only eat fruit when fasting. It is also great for those who prefer not to eat when moving (in planes, buses and trains) and those who suffer from altitude sickness.
A Fruit Platter Meal (FPML) consists of a selection of in-season and local varieties of fruits: apples, melons, oranges, kiwi, pineapple, grapes and berries. It may include fruit juice on the side along with water.
Discover more options on getting fed aboard
A more complete list of special airline meals and their descriptions can be found at:
For passengers who are vegetarians, here is a great article on how you get your veggies on the air:
Do you request a special meal when booking your flight? What has been your experience? Or would you simply opt for a standard meal because they just might be a little different this time?
Share your experiences below in the comments.