The best food museums and exhibitions in the world for food lovers include everything from Parma’s museums dedicated to pasta, cheese, salami, and wine to London’s Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition FOOD: Bigger than the Plate on how innovative individuals, communities and organisations are reinventing how we grow, distribute and experience food.
If there’s one thing that I miss most after Australian food, wine and family (not in that order of course), it’s world-class art galleries and museums, such as Sydney’s outstanding Art Gallery of New South Wales, where I used to spend many lunch hours in the Australian Galleries, and London’s breathtaking Victoria and Albert Museum, the world’s largest museum of applied and decorative arts and design, with a permanent collection of a whopping 2.27 million objects.
The Victoria and Albert Museum has had a compelling and somewhat provocative food exhibition on since May that I’ve been dreaming of getting to, but sadly I’m not going to make it before it ends later this month. If you’re heading to London, try to get to FOOD: Bigger than the Plate and if you can’t, I’ve compiled a list of the best food museums and exhibitions in the world for food lovers that you can see year-round.
The FOOD: Bigger than the Plate exhibition has been the Victoria and Albert Museum’s major show for 2019 and its goal is to take visitors on a multi-sensory journey through the food cycle, from compost to table, unwrapping the global food chain, while posing questions in playful and unexpected ways.
The exhibition sets out to explore some of the biggest issues we face globally right now – from climate change and sustainability to the rights of workers in the food industries – and asks questions such as how can what we eat be more sustainable and ethical.
The V&A Museum show features more than 70 works, including new commissions, such as Uli Westphal’s stunning ‘Supernatural’ series, above, along with creative projects and collaborations between artists, designers, chefs, farmers, scientists, and communities, focused on four themes – Compost, Farming, Trading, and Eating.
To give you an idea of what’s on show, the first 200 limited-edition tickets were edible, made from icing sugar; an exhibition of oyster mushrooms growing out of coffee grounds from the V&A cafe are harvested and used at the cafe; Nienke Hoogvliet’s Waterschatten products are made from reclaimed used toilet paper; Sinae Kim’s human bladder-shaped vessels have been glazed with some 280 litres of urine she collected over five months; and Christina Agapakis and Sissel Tolaas’ Selfmade project featured culturing cheeses from human bacteria.
I encourage you to click through to the V&A site to take a look. The FOOD: Bigger than the Plate exhibition guide also looks fascinating. If you do get to the show, I’d love to hear how you enjoyed it (feel free to leave a comment below), and if you can’t, these are the best food museums in the world for you to savour year-round on your future travels.
Best Food Museums and Exhibitions in the World for Food Lovers
Alimentarium Food Museum, Vevey, Switzerland
Easily one of the world’s best food museums for culinary travellers, Alimentarium was also the world’s first food museum when it opened in 1985. Located in the former headquarters of Nestlé in Vevey, Switzerland, Alimentarium invites visitors to embark on an interactive exploration of the complexity of food around the world and through history. Along with a treasured collection of some 400 objects – from an Egyptian cake dating to 2251-2157 BC and a 1930 Czech sugar loaf to cooking utensils, such as dough wheel, meat tenderiser, baking tin, and butter mould dating to the 17th century – the strength of the museum is its immersive, interactive exhibitions. Structured around several themes that invite you to think about food as it relates to the environment, society and your body, exhibits use responsive video walls and tactile terminals to cover everything from how food has been gathered, hunted, reared and grown, to how it has traditionally and industrially been processed, manufactured and preserved before it reaches our table. Personal stories are projected during an introduction to cooking at a table with interactive games involving recipes and culinary techniques. The Society sector focuses on how food connects us through practices, traditions and customs of preparing, cooking and sharing food, and the diversity of eating habits over time and around the world, while illuminating “the richness of rituals, festivals and places where we eat across the globe”. A community wall invites you to explore cosmopolitan culinary discoveries through the use of hashtags such as #foodporn, while a special terminal allows you to share childhood memories, tips and ‘food selfies’, which will be used to expand a memory bank, inspired by Proust’s Madeleine. Favourite recipes can be added, which may get recreated by the Alimentarium chefs. There are regular culinary workshops on subjects such as fishing for food and traditional techniques of sorbet and ice cream making and a gorgeous kitchen garden that you can stroll which is the main source of produce the Alimentarium chefs cook with in the on-site restaurant.
Learn that there’s more to Swiss food than cheese and chocolate on this Zurich food tour on which you’ll sample popular dishes such as zürigschnetzlets, hörnli mit Ghacktem and chäschuechli. Of course there’s nothing wrong with cheese and chocolate! On this group gourmet tour go chocolate shopping at the Lindt factory before a cable car ride up a mountain for panoramic views and traditional Swiss cheese fondue.
Parma Food Museums, Parma, Italy
Scattered around the province of Parma, one of Italy’s top destinations for food lovers are some of the best food museums in the world for culinary travellers, including eight specialised food and drink museums that come under the umbrella of Musei del Cibo. There’s a Parmigiano Reggiano museum in Soragna, a Parma ham museum in Langhirano, a museum dedicated to salami in Parma’s Castello di Felino, another to cured ham at the Culatello di Zubelo in Polesine Parmense, a pasta museum and a tomato museum in Collecchio, a Porcini mushroom museum in Borgotaro, and a wine museum in the cellars of Parma’s Rocca di Sala Baganza. Visit them all and you’ll take a mouthwatering journey through Italian gastronomy. In addition to covering the history and artisanal production of the products, all museums offer tastings and other activities. If you’re planning to visit all and are self-driving, buy the Museums of Food Card, which includes extra perks, such as discounts at local restaurants. All museums are free on World Food Day (16 October 2019). Learn more about this delicious region.
On this full day Parma food tour, you’ll get to do Parmigiano Reggiano cheese tasting after a tour of an artisanal Parmigiano Reggiano cheese factory, savour sweet Parma ham after a tour of a family-run Parma ham factory, and enjoy lunch in trattoria before a tour of an ancient acetaia before try the finest balsamic vinegars.
Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum, Yokohama City, Japan
Opened in 1994, Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum was the world’s first food-themed amusement park and remains one of the world’s best food museums, especially for lovers of Japanese noodles. Visitors can learn about the history of ramen, beginning with the discovery of Chinese noodles in the Muromachi period (1338-1573) and dawn of ramen in 1859 when Japan opened its ports to the world, foreign settlements were established in major port towns, Chinese restaurants opened, and a Chinese noodle soup that would evolve into Japanese ramen was served. The highlight of the experience is the atmospheric re-creation of a Tokyo streetscape in 1958, the year instant noodles were invented. Doubling as a food court it hosts (on a rotating basis) some of the most renowned – and most innovative – ramen noodle shops, from Komurasaki, an historic ramen shop founded in 1954 in Kumamoto, Kyushu, famed for its tonkotsu-based ramen which combines chicken bone and vegetable broth over a tonkotsu (pork bone) base, served with their special oil and roasted garlic chips, to Muku Zweite, a European ramen shop in Japan for the first time, that incorporates French and Italian techniques in their ramen, such as noodles made with durum flour, traditionally used for pasta and pizza. There’s also a traditional sweet shop, a dessert café, and a museum shop where you can buy dried ramen noodles, bowls and chopsticks. Note that visitors are required to buy a minimum of one bowl of ramen. The museum is a 50-minute train ride from Tokyo.
On this Tokyo ramen tour through three distinct Tokyo neighbourhoods, your local ramen guru will teach you about the origins of ramen and different types of ramen. You’ll sample six different mini bowls of ramen from three award winning ramen shops, each with their own style. You’ll try a fish-based ramen you won’t find outside Japan, a curry ramen and a fusion tonkotsu ramen among others, as you hear about ramen trends and the future for ramen. Or learn how to make ramen from a ramen chef in an actual ramen shop kitchen.
Marukin Soy Sauce Museum, Shodoshima, Japan
Located on the island of Shodoshima, Japan, the Marukin Shoyu Soy Sauce Museum may be small but it’s easily one of the best food museums in the world for food lovers. Marukin is one of Japan’s best soy sauce brands and its museum offers a fabulous insight into the history and production of artisanal soy sauce. Exhibits cover the traditional soy sauce process and there are archival documents dating to the 1600s for serious researchers that reveal how the area’s salt pans made the island the ideal location for soy sauce production. Its proximity to Osaka’s port also helped. A highlight: the opportunity to sample soy sauce ice cream. A bonus for food lovers: olives. Shodoshima is Mediterranean-like with Greek-style windmills, nature trails and picturesque beaches. At Shodoshima Olive Garden, you can picnic among the olive groves and taste olives in various forms, including traditional pickles, olive oil, olive oil ice cream, as well as olive chocolates and snacks. If you’re keen to join the olive harvest and do some olive picking, you need to go now. The Shodoshima Olive Harvest Festival is currently underway. See the Shodoshima site for more details.
Learn more about Japanese produce on this exclusive, private insider fish market tour and sushi master class guided by veterans of Tsukiji and Toyosu fish markets, which gives you an immersive experience of the world’s biggest fish markets, with special behind-the-scenes access, before a sushi making class with a sushi master, using premium quality ingredients, and a sushi lunch.
Museum Kimchikan, Seoul, South Korea
If you’re a kimchi lover or just a fermentation enthusiast, then one of the best food museums for you is Museum Kimchikan in Seoul, South Korea. The museum is dedicated to kimchi and kimjang, the many centuries-old traditional process of preparation and preservation of kimchi, which was added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list in 2013. A spicy vegetable dish made from fermented cabbage and other vegetables such as radish and spring onions, kimchi is a staple of Korean cuisine that’s used as a condiment, an accompaniment to a main meal, and in hearty soups and other dishes. Kimchi preparation begins in the summer months with fresh seasonal vegetables that are preserved in large quantities to be consumed throughout the wintertime. The kimchi museum covers the long history of kimyang and the entire process, giving visitors the opportunity to take a peek through a microscope to observe some live lactobacillus, the lactic acid bacteria that’s so crucial to making kimchi, as well as the chance to sample an array of kimchi varieties in a tasting room. For the full experience, it’s best to book a guided tour with an English-speaking docent ahead of your visit via the museum website.
On this Korean food and wine tasting tour in Seoul’s Old Town, Insadong and Bukchon, you’ll learn about Seoul-originated liquors from a brewmaster at a traditional Korean brewery. You’ll sample ten different kinds of liquors, each with its own distinct brewing methods, potency, bitterness and ingredients, including Makgeolli (Korean rice wine) and Soju (Korean vodka), which you’ll enjoy with kimchi stew and pork dishes (bossam).
Museum of Food and Drink, Brooklyn, New York City, USA
Still in its early development phase, the Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD) in New York City in the USA is shaping up to be one of the best food museums in the future. In the mould of Switzerland’s Alimentarium, MOFAD aims to inspire curiosity about food, what it means and how it connects us all by bringing the world of food to life with exhibits that you can taste, touch, and smell. Their goals are to try to better connect people to what they eat by educating people about food production and distribution, to encourage an appreciation of food history and anthropology and an understanding of lost and endangered regional cuisines and culinary arts, and to inspire a new generation of better-informed consumers, producers, chefs, and educators. The founders want people of all ages and backgrounds, from apathetic and picky eaters to food enthusiasts and gourmands to care more about food and to make better choices for themselves as much as their environment and community. Currently operating from the MOFAD Lab, a 5,000-square-foot experimental space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, their current exhibition is Chow: Making the Chinese American Restaurant, which traces their nearly 170-year history, celebrates their birth and evolution, and attempts to spark a conversation about culinary culture, immigration, and what it means to be American. Highlights include a timeline of Chinese American restaurant menus dating back to 1910, a larger-than-life installation of 7,250 Chinese takeout boxes, each one representing seven of the almost 50,000 Chinese American restaurants in the USA, and the KitchenAid Culinary Studio, where you can sample tastings prepared by some of the country’s most talented chefs cooking Chinese American cuisine.
On this three-hour Brooklyn food tour, you’ll learn about the area’s rich culinary history, sample artisanal cheese, bread and coffee, visit New York’s oldest Middle Eastern bakery, and get a taste of the growing café scene and restaurants specialising in New American cuisine.
Image credit: ‘Supernatural’ by Uli Westphal, 2019, commissioned by the Victoria & Albert Museum for FOOD: Bigger than the Plate. Image used with permission of Victoria & Albert Museum Press Office.
If you’re a museum lover who has been to some of these or others, we’d love to know which museums you think are the best food museums and exhibitions in the world. Feel free to leave your tips below.