Terminal Fullness: Why We Can’t Quit Airport Food

Chicken wings at 5.30 am? Yes. Dessert at 6? Absolutely. Beer at nine in the morning? Wouldn’t have it any other way. A burger with a side of masala dosa? Duh.

Airports are a strange space of unrest and disquiet. You rush to get there, you rush to get out of there: but once you’re inside, time stops. The airport is a vacuum. Given the footfall at an airport (trillions of people go to the Delhi airport each day, probably), it is inevitable that the people ahead of you walk too slow and the ones behind too fast, further warping your sense of time. This stretch is punctuated only by shoulder barges and “excuse mes” and “sorrys,” a whole sub-culture of passive-aggressive behaviour. There’s never any place to sit, so you stand around and figure out a survival strategy.

One of these strategies is food; and food at airports is anarchy. At the domestic airport in Delhi — the uncool terminal, with the pigeons flying their faces smack into walls — the assault on the senses begins early. There’s a stall selling drinks and light snacks of the samosa variety to newly-arriveds right at the entrance, as you’re getting out of an Uber. They stuff an aloo burger in your face even before the policeman has had the chance to scrutinise your ticket, your Aadhar card, your face, your fingerprints, probably, and made that non-committal “hmmm” sound.

It gets progressively more intense. Inside, after the security check where they’ve patted you down, Café Delhi Heights sucks every sense into its vortex, with its patrons getting beer and sauce-heavy snacks while surrounded by a thousand “silent” announcements, people walking at inconsistent speeds, and a lot of shops (because airports are actually malls). And a Starbucks is nearby — of course it is; there’s one on my balcony too — with its Excel-macro list of tiresome options. “Would you like some meatball spaghetti in your coffee, sir?” I swear heard the server ask someone the last time I was there.

Plane Au Chocolat

The dominant culinary theme at Indian airports is fast food. Everything is bread-this and bread-that. The carbs come in handy when you’re walking around aimlessly. You can grab a paneer tikka mayo sandwich, run to your boarding gate and eat it fairly neatly even as you fight for elbow space with your neighbour. Can’t do that with a chicken breast.

One thing I’ve noticed is that croissants — novelty food only ever eaten at hotel breakfasts and in France (presumably) — tend to be popular at airports. Almond croissants, chocolate croissants, chicken croissants, stuffed veg croissants. They have it all. I got myself a pain au chocolat from the same genre, although it isn’t actually fast food because it takes as long to say as it does to eat.

But the maximum activity happens where the food courts are located. Inevitably a KFC hovers into view, in which the counter people refer to the staff preparing the food in the back as “buddy”. It’ll be next to a Pizza Hut, this one without a 30-minutes-or-free guarantee. The Vaango sells South Indian meals, because heavy breakfast food was popular at airports long before brunch became a thing. A Subway: odd thing to have in an airport. Karim’s (this is Delhi; I can never remember whether or not the Bombay airports are all vegetarian. They’ve got to be, right?). A juice bar facing a grown-up bar with beer. The classic Bengali ice-cream outlet Haagen-Dazs.

I’m not a fan of these food courts. There’s never any place to sit, and I hate having to choose without a reliable metric for comparison between cuisines - it’s like eating at a CP bar. For me, personally, if I do ever get a seat in some corner, I’m scurrying through my meal, barely even chewing, because invariably a family of 16 starts hovering near me, gently brushing my shoulder every couple of minutes to remind me that they’re hungry too.

So, elephant-in-the-room time: why does everything at airports taste so good? Simple, really. The prices. The brands there are all established, are presumably paying many lot of taxes to make sure that our airports don’t leak in the rain, and constitute a monopoly in a secure space. Consequently, nothing costs less than Rs. 50; that’s the price of a bottle of water, usually the kind with copy on the side earnestly assuring you it comes from a spring in the high Himalayas. Result: when I pay through the roof for something that I’d probably avoid in the real world, simply because I’m bored, I’m going to damn well enjoy it.

I’ll end with a completely rational, not at all conspiratorial thought: airplanes are not affected by bad weather. They get delayed because the food-court mafia bullies the airlines into delaying so that we eat one more doughnut. No one, not even the cabin crew, would wish that junglee sandwich on us, after all.

Akhil Sood is an arts and culture writer in New Delhi.

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