After taking the chance and braving the rain, I made it to the Expo with about 6 hours to eat my way around the world. 1,000 words later, it’s probably a good idea that I actually describe what exactly the Milan Expo is…
It’s described by the organizers as a “Universal Exposition” – whatever that means. For me it invokes the images of the old World’s Fairs that I’ve seen immortalized in posters and images and that I had assumed would never come around again for me to see with my own eyes. Long story short, it’s a county fair on steroids mixed with a farmer’s market and sprinkled with a dash of the Olympics. Almost every country you could imagine had a booth. A few countries had smaller, less ornate booths (think shipping container size), but the vast majority (maybe 100+) had enormously large, ornate, multi-story booths.
The tagline of the Expo was “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life”. To this end, many of the booths focused on sustainability and ways to avoid over-consumption. I don’t know about you, but one guaranteed way to get me to over-consume is to put 100+ booths representing different countries, cuisines, and cultures together in one walkable area and then have each country offer food that best represents their culinary traditions. Every country highlighted the unique parts about their cuisine, and more importantly, had a few select dishes available to try! With over 100 booths, I’m going to limit(probably already too late for that) my writing to the exhibits I ate at or otherwise found particularly interesting.
It’s called an Expo for a reason, and as you might expect, each country was doing its best to stand out. When it came to the food, there were a few vendors that immediately jumped out at me. My very first stop was to a small cart outside the chocolate group (some smaller countries that didn’t field a full exhibit sometimes formed corporate sponsored conglomerates around a single ingredient they were all known for). This car was armed with one of those rotating vertical spits used for making gyros. What’s this doing in the chocolate area?What if I told you instead of chicken or lamb spinning on this spit, it was a huge hunk of chocolate? The chocolate was shaved off for each order and rolled up in a cakey square. Sure it’s a bit gimmicky when there are so many other culturally rich options, but I loved the novelty and the shaved chocolate actually tasted a lot different than just eating a candy bar. I’d get one again if I knew where I could!
It might have been the loud music and dancers out front (ok, it was the loud music and dancers out front), but something drew me towards the Slovenia exhibit. I guess, I feel Slovenia. I’m not giving out awards here (who would want them?), but Slovenia would have certainly won for most energetic booth!As I explored the booth, I got to the back and saw they had some Slovenian food for sale. By this point I had a rumble in my stomach and a hole in my wallet so I may have overdone it a bit. Sure, food is more global than it ever has been – Korean, Ethiopian and Brazilian are all within easy reach – but Slovenian? I’ve never had Slovenian before. So instead of being reasonable, I went for the large version of 2 dishes: Karniolan sausage and idrijski zlikrofi z bakalco (potato dumplings, duhh). The sausage was… sausage. But, the potato dumplings were delicious! I was expecting something like gnocchi from the description but these reminded me more of tiny pierogi. The sauce reminded me of a hearty stew and funny enough was the most unusual pasta I had while in Italy.
There was another smaller vendor that really captured my attention. It was right outside the Slovakia booth and surrounded by a massive crowd. The line for this tiny cart was as long as the line for any of the full on exhibits. Whatever they were making (trdelnik) looked good so I got in line. They would take dough, stretch it out and then roll it around what was basically a rolling pin. They would then take this rolling pin, put some sugar on it and put it in a roaster that spun the pin around. As the dough started to brown they would take one out, shimmy it off the pin and cover it with one of three toppings.
No idea what any of the toppings were, but it looked liked cinnamon sugar, some kind of nuts with sugar and some kind of chocolate dust (this tends to be a theme – menus were usually in the language of the country operating the booth or Italian neither of which helped me very much).
Thanks to my quick thinking and the magic of Google Translate, I now know the available toppings were ground walnuts, cinnamon sugar, and poppy seeds. Cinnamon sugar was definitely the most requested. Time went by and the line just wasn’t moving. I had a lot of Expo to see and time was running out, so I left the line without ordering one of my own. At least I was able to get a few pictures to share.
I wish I could say there was a method as to how I picked which exhibits I saw and which I just walked by. I’m not sure what convinced me to go to Russia, but soon enough I found myself standing in line. They had a focus on “experimental” foods and their bar had some very cool looking things going on. Everyone crowded around the bar, but nothing seemed to be happening.As I was about to leave, 2 bartenders came out and started pouring some Russian soft drinks. There were a few choices, one of which was piping hot, but I chose the Kvass. It seems even the soft drinks in Russia have alcohol. Kvass is actually a fermented drink with a very mild alcohol content that is sweetened with fruit flavors. If you’ve ever been to Disney or the Coca-Cola factory and been able to taste the different sodas from around the world, rest assured that none of those tasted anywhere near as strange and unique as the Russian Kvass.
Slovakia Part 2
After coming out of the Russian booth, I just couldn’t stop thinking about the trdelnik from Slovakia. I had to go back and see if the line was any shorter. I backtracked back to Slovakia (as in real life its about a 30 second walk) and was happy to see the line was MUCH shorter. I got back in line and watched as the dynamic duo continued rolling trdelniks (not quite sure how to pluralize that one) in between sips of beer. I had my choice of the 3 toppings – I went for the crushed nuts. (A third helper had also just come out with a fresh batch of the nut topping – my luck was really starting to heat up).
Was it worth waiting in line twice? It was my favorite thing that I tried at the Expo, so yes it was definitely worth it. I only wish I had gotten 1 or 2 more while I was there! It reminded me equally of a pretzel, fried dough, and a cinnamon bun while somehow being very different from all three. It was hot, sweet and honestly just a lot of fun to eat.
Being American, I felt it was my patriotic duty to visit the USA pavilion. Chances were I wasn’t going to eat anything there, but I still wanted to check it out. The presentation turned out to be one of my favorite of the whole Expo. It highlighted the regional and cultural diversity of the American food landscape through a series of quick videos that touched on everything from the Italian American influences of the northeast to the soul food and BBQ of the south to the Asian inspired food of the American West. Sure, when some people think of American cuisine they think of KFC and McDonald’s, but there’s no other country that has such a diversity of cuisine. Its easy to take that for granted, but I definitely left the USA booth with a greater appreciation of my hometown cuisine.
Being an international event, there was a healthy dose of rivalry and one-upmanship amongst the countries. With varying degrees of subtlety each country was trying to convince visitors that it had a better history, cuisine, geography, king, president, you name it than the rest. Now, there were countries that had no shame about self-promotion and then there was France. For instance, I learned at the French pavilion that humans used to obtain all their nutrients via photosynthesis before the French invented eating.
I kid of course, but the French presentation certainly wasn’t shy about claiming to have the best culinary tradition. To be fair, the French influence on modern cuisine cannot be disputed and they do have one the richest culinary traditions going, but come on guys, how about just a hint of modesty? On a side note the decorations of their booth were pretty cool – it was like a giant kitchen with pots, pans, utensils and vegetables ALL over.
After having traveled around the world a couple times, I figured it was time for a break. As the saying goes, it’s 5 o’clock somewhere and as luck would have it, it was 5pm in Germany. Italian wine is fantastic, but sometimes you just want a beer. Germany gets that. Sometimes a pint won’t do. Germany gets that.Like the USA, Germany focused a lot on the different regional cuisines of the country. I was starting to run a little short on time so I didn’t get to read about each region, but I loved the map, background, and well known dishes that were highlighted for each of the major regions of Germany.
After a week in (the real) Italy I was a little disappointed with the lack of charcuterie I’d had. I figured it was about time to fix that. It was a short walk to Italy from Germany, so fortunately it was still happy hour by the time I got there. I had the choice between a limited tasting menu and the full tasting menu. In the name of reducing over consumption I opted for the full tasting menu. And a beer.
There was only one way to follow up a plate full of cured meats and a glass of beer…
And that of course is a plate full of cheese and a glass of wine. Don’t let the presentation fool you, each one of the 4 cheeses was delicious and was the perfect way to end my food adventure at the Expo. I found this cheese plate within the massive Eataly booth which itself was comprised of many smaller booths representing the many regions of Italy. Fun fact for the readers, I can now say I’ve been to Eataly in New York, Chicago and Milan.
I was starting to run out of time by this point, but when I walked by the Polish pavilion I had to stop by. I’ve got a little Polish heritage so like the USA booth I felt it my duty to visit. It was one of the simpler exhibits I saw, but the video that played (on a simple TV, no fancy projectors or holograms here) really captivated me. The video went through the whole history of Poland through every major event before going into an interview with some local Polish farmers. It’s hard to describe, but I really appreciated the simplicity when most other countries went for bigger, brighter and louder displays of grandeur.
I had a ton of fun at the Milan Expo, but one booth was leaps and bounds (literally) more fun than the others. I have no idea what it was supposed to represent, but Brazil had a huge rope walk stretching from one end of their pavilion to the other. Bouncing around on this thing (with the rain picking back up) was pure, plain, unadulterated FUN. I was trying not to smile or giggle too much, but there was no helping it.
There’s more to the Expo than I could ever write about. I knew in an afternoon I would never be able to see everything, but in the 7 or so hours I spent at the Expo I was able to at least stroll by each of the booths and check out a few of my favorites. I had to skip quite a few of the special presentations and if I had a week to dedicate, I wouldn’t hesitate to spend every day at the Expo and truly see everything it has to offer. That said, if I could do that afternoon over again the only thing I would change would be to spend a lot less time trying to find the North Korean pavilion.
And that part about not coming back to Milan for a while, well, I wouldn’t mind changing that now that I know what’s there to see. It was one opportunity I’m very glad I didn’t miss out on.