Interest in plant-based food is skyrocketing in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Emirates, its largest airline, is heeding the call with what it calls a “vegan vault” of recipes. 

Emirates introduced plant-based meals to its crew members in 2018 and has been at the forefront of offering vegan options to its passengers, with plant-based dishes available across 140 destinations in 2023.

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Last year, Emirates served more than 450,000 plant-based meals onboard, marking an increase from the 280,000 plant-based meals served in the previous year. 

And the airline is keeping the momentum going into 2024 when passengers in every class will have even more vegan options. 

“Emirates has always taken pride in our ‘Fly Better’ promise to exceed customer expectations and deliver an exceptional travel experience,” an Emirates spokesperson tells VegNews.

“The expansion of our vegan menu is just one example of how we demonstrate to our customers that we listen and are eager to accommodate their evolving needs,” the spokesperson says.

Emirates builds a vegan recipe vault

Plant-based meals are in high demand onboard Emirates. The airline reports a year-over-year 40-percent surge in customer consumption of vegan options. 

In some regions, the spokesperson reveals, consumption of vegan meals has exceeded passenger volume growth, including Africa (+4 percent), Southeast Asia (+5 percent), and the Middle East (+34 percent).

To serve these customers, Emirates has been building out its vegan recipe vault, which now contains 300 options, a jump from 180 recipes it had in 2022. 

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In Economy Class—where the vegan trend is most pronounced—passengers can now savor an array of internationally inspired vegan dishes. “The most unexpected trend was the significant increase in vegan meal consumption in Economy Class,” the spokesperson said. “As a result, we introduced a variety of plant-based dishes for Economy Class passengers, such as stuffed chickpea crepes, pumpkin frittatas, tofu tikka masala, and chickpea kale stew.”

Premium Economy Class passengers can relish jackfruit curry with basmati rice, a rich squash chestnut stew, and desserts such as chocolate tofu cheesecake and raspberry parfait with a pop of orange compote.

Business Class offers roasted cauliflower with ancient grains, caramelized pear, and lovage pesto, or a warming ragout of Asian tofu and shiitake mushroom with glass noodles. 

First Class passengers can enjoy exceptionally elevated vegan cuisine, including creamy polenta cake with thyme mushroom ragout, sautéed spinach drizzled in a rich root vegetable jus, aubergine curry with charred rice and turmeric potato, and more.

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“We provide authentic cuisines from the countries our customers come from and the destinations they are traveling to, embracing the responsibility of catering to diverse tastes,” the spokesperson says. “Food is a vital aspect of Dubai’s culture and hospitality, and at Emirates, we take great pride in it.” 

Emirates plans to expand its vegan offerings further in the coming year, introducing new main courses, snacks such as fruit muffins and pizza, and an array of desserts, including chocolate pecan cake, pistachio raspberry, and raspberry Tonka cake. 

“We want to provide our customers with a wide range of choices and ensure that our vegan offerings are as diverse and satisfying as possible,” the spokesperson says. 

Emirates prides itself on sourcing high-quality products globally to enhance its in-flight dining experiences. Some of the products used include plant-based proteins from Beyond Meat in California; soybean protein from Singapore; Qian Ye pressed tofu from Japan; organic dark vegan chocolate from Linnolat in France; and vegan margarine from MeisterMarken in Germany among others.

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The airline also incorporates fresh locally grown kale and lettuce from Bustanica, the world’s largest hydroponic vertical farm, which it supports with a $40 million joint venture investment through Emirates Flight Catering.

Perfecting in-flight vegan meals

Emirates’ process of developing its vegan menu involves extensive research, collaboration with skilled chefs, sourcing fresh ingredients, and considering regional tastes and cultural preferences. 

Chefs here work to maximize the flavor and texture of vegan meals, looking at international staples such as jackfruit, kohlrabi, tofu, and cauliflower for their meaty textures.

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“Panels of highly skilled and experienced Emirates Flight Catering chefs work closely with nutritionists to identify ingredients from existing popular dishes, which can be adapted to a vegan offering without compromising on flavor,” the spokesperson says. “They also focus on fusing flavors and ingredients from around the world to create a menu that will appeal to all passengers across the network, not just vegan customers.” 

The airline conducts multiple taste tests to ensure the deliciousness of each dish, changing options monthly to keep things interesting and craveable. 

“Our highest priority is to deliver cuisines that provide great satisfaction while meeting any dietary restriction,” the spokesperson says. “After all, exceptional food and drink are integral to the Emirates experience.”

Gathering and incorporating passenger feedback play a vital role in the ongoing development of Emirates’ vegan offerings. The airline analyzes popular choices from the previous year to adapt and expand offerings according to specific routes and demographics.

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“Emirates’ commitment to vegan cuisine is a competitive advantage,” the spokesperson says. “As a leader in delivering innovative and diverse in-flight dining experiences, we hope to encourage other airlines to embrace more sustainable and inclusive catering practices.”

UAE embraces Veganuary

While Emirates is working to meet vegan demand at 35,000 feet in the air, on the ground in the UAE, the trend towards vegan cuisine is gaining significant traction among top chefs and restaurants.

This Veganuary, a month-long challenge encouraging a vegan diet for January, turned into a star-studded culinary celebration at Atlantis Dubai, which celebrated plant-based dare across its iconic resorts, Atlantis, The Palm and Atlantis, The Royal.

The celebration featured a spectacular lineup of chefs, each bringing their unique flair to vegan cuisine, including Michelin-starred British chef Heston Blumenthal; Peruvian chef Gastón Acurio, celebrated for elevating Peruvian cuisine to international acclaim; celebrated Spanish chef José Andrés; and celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay.

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Dubai’s embrace of plant-based dining follows the city’s role as host to the recent COP28 climate conference where, for the first time, two-thirds of the food offerings were plant-based.

There, delegates were treated to options such as kebab sandwiches, kofta wraps, and burgers made with plant-based meat by local company Switch Foods alongside vegan fish and chips, various sushi rolls, and desserts. 

Aya Mounir, from YOUNGO, the Youth and Children constituency of the UNFCCC, applauded the move to a more sustainable menu.

“Shifting societies to more plant-based foods is essential if we want to avoid ecosystem collapse and what better way than to show country representatives firsthand how tasty and nutritious climate-friendly food can really be,” Mounir said in a statement. 

“We hope delegates will return home inspired by the plant-rich meals they have seen and eaten and initiate strategies to promote the production and consumption of plant-based foods in their own countries,” she said.

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