On Saturday, I traveled to Nepal because I was hungry. I bought an appetizer, which was satisfying, but the main courses weren’t calling my name. So I went to the Netherlands, but their food wasn’t exactly inspiring. It was only when I arrived in Chile that I finally found what I wanted.
If you’re wondering whether I fly around in a private jet in my spare time, receiving hot stone massages in the air while drinking expensive champagne, I can tell you that I don’t – although that lifestyle is included in my five-year plan.
My around-the-world food tour was actually made possible by Expo 2015. If you’ve been in Milan for at least three minutes, you’re well aware of this event.
You’ve probably seen the signs, the metro has pointed you in the direction to Rio Fiera, and billboards at Central Station have boasted Expo’s colorful logo. You’ve likely seen both locals and tourists en route to Expo, and you may have even heard rumors about the huge amounts of money – and alleged corruption – that made it happen.
There’s a lot of hype surrounding Expo – but is it really worth a visit, or just the product of a great media campaign?
I put aside €5 (the price of an evening ticket) and four hours to find out the answer to that question.
What is Expo 2015?
Taking place over the course of six months (May 1, 2015 – October 31, 2015), Expo gives participating countries the chance to “show the best of their technology that offers a concrete answer to a vital need: being able to guarantee healthy, safe and sufficient food for everyone, while respecting the planet and its equilibrium.”
Keeping with that theme, the slogan of Expo 2015 is “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.” Also known as the World’s Fair, the event is held once every five years in varying locations.
A full-day ticket to the event will set you back €39, but allows you to be at the venue from 10 a.m. until close (11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, midnight on Friday and Saturday). An evening ticket is substantially cheaper, giving you access to Expo from 7 p.m. to close.
The days are full of various workshops and events, but the evening ticket is best if you’re only interested in wandering around, exploring the different pavilions, and sampling the food on offer.
During my visit on a Saturday night, the wait times to get into the larger exhibitions were quite long, so I decided to focus on merely taking in the atmosphere of the pavilions and enjoying a progressive dinner from different corners of the globe.
Expo meets Epcot
It was drizzly outside, but the weather didn’t stop the crowds from turning out. A short line and security check later, it was time to roam around 116 countries.
The first thought that pops to mind is Epcot, as the variety of nations are reminiscent of the ‘World Showcase,’ where exhausted parents drag their demanding children to 11 different countries, buying souvenirs that cost four times the amount they should.
But this was a better, more adult version of Epcot – less kids and more beer.
In a somewhat realistic representation of the world, all countries were not created equal. Some clearly spent more money on exhibitions boasting their food production methods, while others simply had a few bags of seeds on display, along with a couple handmade crafts for sale.
Several pavilions had live music and performances that were characteristic of their countries, and others just looked a bit sad compared to the elaborate setups of their neighbors.
Reviews by country
A comprehensive review of Expo 2015 would require several evening visits, or a full-day ticket. But for now, let’s focus on the food and atmosphere of a few select countries.
The US should be mega proud of itself for its fountain, which actually spelled out sentences and made some really hypnotic designs. It was difficult to snap a photo because it moved so fast, but you can see the video below.
It also gets points for its “food truck nation,” tapping into what has become a culinary phenomenon in American food culture.
Nepal receives points for its setup of an extremely realistic Hindu temple. With zen-like music softly playing from the speakers and a beautiful statue greeting you upon arrival, the pavilion was by far the most tranquil – a sharp contrast to the loud music and drum shows put on by other countries.
The outside of the temple was a tiered pagoda which would be difficult for anyone to overlook. Colorful prayer flags topped off the scene, and as silly as it sounds, the pavilion actually managed to strengthen my desire to visit Nepal.
And the food only helped the situation. The €5 steamed pork momo balls – along with whatever amazing sauce accompanied them – were heavenly.
But alas, the goal is to experience multiple countries, so it was off to Bahrain.
The Gulf kingdom was a disappointment after Nepal, with an open space that was welcoming enough, but didn’t offer anything spectacular. The Bahraini fruits and plants growing around the path were a nice touch, but that’s where it ended. Onwards.
Hands down, the Netherlands is the winner for the most lively pavilion, with food trucks and a real party atmosphere. A DJ was spinning tunes in a gazebo while the happy-go-lucky Dutch served up the country’s cuisine – which, admittedly, isn’t really all that delicious.
But Holland gets a pass because it did the best with what little cuisine the country has to offer – even constructing a bar underneath the quaintest ferris wheel ever to exist.
It also gets huge bonus points for the two cows that were lazing in the pond. Anyone who has bothered to extend their stay in the Netherlands further than Amsterdam will know that these spotted animals are more quintessentially Dutch than weed or prostitutes could ever be.
Oh, Brazil! It has a reputation for fun, and that’s exactly what it seemed to be providing. Its exhibition was reached via a massive rope path, and no one seemed to mind waiting in a rather long line to give it a go.
The Brazilian cheese bread was good, but not nearly exceptional enough to have been chosen for Expo. The price was also somewhat disappointing – five bites will set you back €6. Brazil ended with a score of zero (+1 for its rope path, -1 for its cheese bread).
Sticking with South America, Colombia deserves a mention for its rainforest theme, which looks like paradise from the outside.
Despite a great menu, the dining experience was a let-down, with several of the choices no longer available. A disappointment to say the least, considering it was only 8 p.m. and the cafe would be open for another four hours.
Trading yet another South American country for a third one, it was time to venture over to Chile. If you enjoy quality, go there. With a huge assortment of Chilean wines and a wooden theme, the pavilion’s strength is in its simplicity – proving that sometimes less is more. For a bit of a quirky twist, life-sized naked wooden men stand guard as you eat your food. But don’t worry – it’s not as provocative as it sounds, because they have the anatomy of a Ken doll.
One tasty Chilean beef empanada later (€7), it was off to the Middle East again.
If Oman is anything like its pavilion, it’s full of greatness. The country’s palace-like facade had a stream running through it, and it just gave off that general vibe of being on holiday in a really hot place. Well done, Oman.
EXPO is definitely worth a visit, though it’s important to remember that while there is great cuisine and a lot of choice, this event is aimed at feeding the planet – so don’t expect a “food festival” atmosphere.
It does have a lot to offer, though, and a visit to each country is an educational experience in itself (you’ll leave knowing what music from Angola sounds like).
If you’re interested in seeing individual exhibitions, go on a weeknight to avoid the long lines. And if you’re not too interested in the various workshops on offer during the day, save yourself a substantial amount of money and buy the evening ticket.
Whatever you do, enjoy yourself, and wash all that nice food down with a Moretti. Because even though it feels like a trip around the world, you’re still in Italy after all.