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Virgin Atlantic Can't Seem to Win in Controversy Over 'Palestinian Couscous'

The airline faces vitriol both for calling its couscous 'Palestinian' and then for changing the name in efforts to appease customers.

Jelisa Castrodale

Photos via Flickr users tomasdelcoro and mealmakeovermoms

Airplane food is typically something that we can all agree on, because we all know that regardless of the airline, regardless of the cuisine, and regardless of whether you choose chicken or pasta, it will always taste like bland, preservative-laden sadness. But Virgin Atlantic recently found itself at the center of a controversy, all because of one of its menu items.

In December, a Twitter user posted a photo of Virgin Atlantic’s in-flight menu, which featured a vegetarian starter called “Palestinian couscous salad.” According to the BBC, the photo continued to generate commentary on Twitter and in pro-Israel Facebook groups. “I thought this was an Israeli salad,” one user wrote in the Israel Advocacy Movement group. “Obviously [Virgin founder Richard] Branson showing his true colors. Israelis must boycott Virgin and Israel must ask for an explanation. When I complained, the stewardess tried to take the menu back from me.”

To its credit, Virgin swiftly responded, renamed the dish and printed new menus.

But that caused its own helping of unrest with advocates for Palestine. “So @VirginAtlantic changes a dish name on their flight menu from "Palestinian Couscous salad" to "Couscous salad" bc apparently the word PALESTINE is offensive. el oh elllll. God forbid we name something what it is??” one pro-Palestinian Twitter user tweeted.

“Our customers’ experience on board is a key focus and we are constantly refreshing our food offerings on our flights,” Virgin Atlantic said in a statement. “We recently introduced a maftoul salad on board our flights. It includes a mix of maftoul and other couscous, complemented by tomatoes and cucumber and seasoned with parsley, mint and lemon vinaigrette.

“We were aware that maftoul is not a widely known ingredient—so the dish was listed as a ‘Palestinian couscous salad,’ and later as a ‘couscous salad.’ We’d like to reassure all customers that our sole intention was to bring new flavors on board, and never to cause offense through the naming or renaming of the dish.”

(One Palestine-focused website remained perplexed about why Virgin “was not able to explain why it was offensive to describe as Palestinian a dish that it had itself explicitly affirmed was Palestinian cuisine.”)pal

Israeli-British chef and cookbook author Yotam Ottolenghi has written about the difficulty in differentiating between the varieties of couscous, calling them “variations on the theme of very little (or quite little) round (or pretty much round) balls of pasta.” Maftoul, he explained, is the least familiar member of the couscous family, because it’s not something you’ll often encounter on the shelves of your local supermarket. “[Maftoul is] made from sun-dried bulgur wheat, is larger than couscous and its grains are slightly uneven, because they are rolled by hand,” he wrote. “What makes maftoul worth celebrating is that it's so easy and forgiving to cook.”

Hopefully, Virgin Atlantic will eventually make it to that “easy and forgiving" stage with its couscous-enraged customers, too.

MUNCHIES has reached out to Virgin Atlantic for additional comment on the matter but has not yet received a response.