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Bizarre Foods, Normal Guy: Andrew Zimmern

Bizarre Foods, Normal Guy: Andrew Zimmern Photo

Photo by IgoUgo Staff

Posted on March 13, 2008 in Trip Ideas

With the philosophy that one man’s weird is another man’s wonderful, Andrew Zimmern trots the globe to sample indigenous specialties and delicacies from highly rated restaurants to the jungle floor. His show, Travel Channel’s hit series Bizarre Foods, is now in its second season and continues to stun audiences. And his stomach, made of something stronger than steel and more spine than some of the creatures he devours, is a case study in testing limits. Andrew’s philosophy is neither to gross out nor to impress viewers, but to encourage everyone to keep an open mind when traveling—a lesson plan that we wholeheartedly support. His tactics can be a bit drastic, but they certainly work.

IgoUgo: We love the moniker “culinary explorer;” it really explains both your adventurous palate and also your passion for travel. You started your culinary education relatively young. Was travel something you included in your education from an early age?
Andrew Zimmern: Yes, at a very early age. I’d seen half the world with my mom and dad by the time I was 15. We were the type of family who would drive eight or nine hours across the country or across a mountain range just to have lunch or dinner at a certain restaurant. We loved dining and going to great restaurants, but we also went to important places to eat as opposed to dine. We went to Parisian street markets, we went to London chip shops when I was little—it was just as important for my father to show me the best roasted sausage-maker in Vienna as it was to dine at Paul Bocuse in Lyon at the time that Bocuse had the greatest restaurant in the world.

I remember being in Austria with my dad, and the farmers had these food houses for the animals sprinkled along the mountains. They were the places you’d stop for lunch when you were halfway down the piste. When you were skiing, you’d have one big, hearty meal in a bowl of soup with a big wedge of bread, and you’d be eating oftentimes while standing up, holding your bowl in your ski clothes in this hut that used to be where they’d feed animals in the summertime. It was those sorts of experiences that kind of created my attitude about food and travel and how important it is. I think you learn more about how Austrian farm country works—historically, anthropologically, sociologically—eating a bowl of soup in a cow hut in the middle of the winter in your ski clothes standing up than you do traveling through Vienna eating sachertort.

IgoUgo: Clearly, you have a strong stomach. Were you always encouraged to eat new and exotic things, or was it a personal desire to try everything and test yourself at the same time?
Andrew Zimmern: We were just encouraged to eat what people ate where we were! That’s the spirit of the show. I’m in a hotel room in LA right now, and I could go across the street and eat palm hearts out of a young palm tree or find some bugs—I’m sure there are crickets, and I know there are snails here at night—I could get up in the morning and harvest snails in the bushes outside the hotel, but no one does that here, so what’s the point?

IgoUgo: Have you ever gotten legitimately ill from any of the foods you’ve tried?
Andrew Zimmern: Never. I think it’s just a result of smart eating. I think it’s more dangerous to eat the boneless, skinless chicken breast in the supermarket that you shop in than it is to eat roasted lamb at the Djemma el-Fna in Marrakesh. I’m always encouraging people to travel to different locations and do different things, and the remark I get from them is, “I can’t eat the way you do,” and my response to them is, “Well, why not?” I think if you use your head, it’s easy—just look where everyone else is eating. Just look for fresh, hot food that’s served by people who are happy and smiling, and look at how the customers are reacting as they’re leaving the stand, the same way you’d pick a hot dog vendor in New York City.

The classic example, almost to the extreme, is in Maracas Bay in Trinidad at Richard’s Shark & Bake. There are 15 other vendors on that beach, and if they sell 10 sandwiches in a day combined, I’d be shocked. But Richard’s probably sells three or four thousand, and people are buying two or three at a time just so they don’t have to wait on line again. I’m talking about little old ladies who only have an appetite for half a sandwich, and they’ll eat two.

Sometimes, in our country, the biggest crowds are at Ruby Tuesday—it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best restaurant. When you’re traveling, if you sniff the air and take a step back and say, “OK, what’s really going on here,” and ask a couple of questions, you’ll find out why it’s so special.

IgoUgo: What have been some of the biggest surprises? That is, have you dreaded things and ended up really liking them—like the fried chicken uterus—and been completely unable to look at other things again, like the coconut grubs in the Philippines?
Andrew Zimmern: It happens all the time. The interesting thing is that I’ve had coconut grubs in three different countries now. Anywhere there are palm trees that rot and die, there will be coconut grubs and coconut-grub-harvesting. In the Philippines, I had them, and they were just gross. And I couldn’t understand: inside was this yucky fluid and stomach sac, and I was like, “Wow, that just was not good.” Then, a couple months later, I’m in Ecuador, and there in the jungle, the indigenous tribes were using their thumbs and forking out the stomach, and I said to the guy, “I was just in the Philippines, and they didn’t do that,” and he said, “Well, coconut grubs are wood-eaters, and they’re eating wood in rotten trees, so what’s inside their stomachs is rotten wood—why wouldn’t you get it out of there?” So they get it out of there, and they marinate them in a wild orange that grows there, and they grill them, and they come out all crispy and crunchy, and I couldn’t stop eating them.

So sometimes I encounter both kinds of surprises with the exact same ingredient. When I was coming up through the ranks in the serious food world as a chef, I had the opportunity to work for Thomas Keller in New York at one point, and Thomas always used to say that there actually is a right way to cook something and that once you master that, you can bring your own creativity to bear—there is a right way to roast a chicken. I quickly realized when I was in that jungle that there’s even a right way to cook coconut grubs.

There are certain surprises: the seal soup in Alaska was gamey and nasty, but it was way more appetizing than I thought it was going to be, whereas I thought whale meat was going to be very benign, and I just didn’t care for it. Then you have surprises like the whole roasted sparrows in Vietnam; I was looking forward to it, but I didn’t think I would love it so much that I’d have a bag of them everyday. They were just outstanding. In the Spanish episode, I ate cockscomb for the first time. The chef there braised them and put them in risotto, and now anywhere I see them, I’ll eat them, because when they’re prepared the right way, they’re just fantastic.

IgoUgo: Of all your bizarre eats, has there been one or a few that you’d travel overseas for at the drop of a hat?
Andrew Zimmern: I’d go to the donkey restaurant in Beijing tomorrow. If people ate there, it would absolutely blow their minds. I would go to Russia and gather wild mushrooms and grill some wild boar any day of the week. I’d go to Iceland and travel across the wildest ocean to the Vestmanneyjar to eat puffin; I mean, the food is that fantastic. Then there are other dishes: whole roasted pig, roasted boar, smaller animals that are done so exquisitely. The cuy—the guinea pig in Ecuador—was just spectacular; the grilled piranha over the open fire, cooked in a banana leaf: these are food experiences that you can replicate if you just have an open mind.

IgoUgo: What are some American or New York delicacies that people along your travels have thought were completely bizarre?
Andrew Zimmern: Raccoon and squirrel and nutria down in the South, stinkheads and seal and walrus and salmon jerky in the Northwest: these are things that most people don’t realize are right in their backyards. In Minnesota, we did a “local, fresh, and best” kind of show. The amazing part about that show was that we got to show people what exists right under their noses. When I’m able to run around my home state and show them things like lutefisk—the lye-soaked salt cod—or I’m able to show people wild game like ruffed grouse or herring and eating the roe that comes out of the Great Lakes or any of those sorts of things, it really becomes an incredible experience.

IgoUgo: What are some of your own concoctions that diners might be skeptical to try?
Andrew Zimmern: I have a three-year-old, and my wife was born and bred in Minnesota and is a meat-and-potatoes eater, so it’s not like I’m bringing in some rabbit out of the woods that’s been clubbed over the head. I’ll give you an example: we had some friends over the other night, and we ate what I thought was a very benign shrimp dish, and everyone freaked out because the heads were still on them. People here don’t want to see the head on something. Odd cuts of meat are another thing—people don’t want to see a braised tongue come to the table, but I happen to think it’s fabulous. I’m a nice Jewish kid from New York; my grandmother served tongue a couple times a month. You’ve got to remember: one man’s weird really is another man’s wonderful. I’ve served things like that in my house and gotten some real raised eyebrows, but I don’t want to provoke my guests too much.

I’ll give you the exact opposite: when I first moved to Minnesota, I’d never had hotdish before. Why would you cook hamburger meat and canned mushroom soup and green beans and then layer it with tater tots and bake it in the oven? That’s ridiculous; that’s not even food. Well, now I’m addicted to it. I’m a Jewish kid from NY; I’d never seen a Jell-O salad back home as part of a Thanksgiving or Christmas table. My mother-in-law makes a raspberry-apple, Cool Whip kind of Jell-O thing that is a tradition in her family for two generations, and she has to make a whole separate one just for me to take home; I like it that much. And that’s a cultural thing. Just because it doesn’t crawl, swim, or fly doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t weird. The Jell-O salad, to me, was weird.

IgoUgo: Are you an adventurous eater in everyday life, or do you jump at the chance just to order the burger and fries when the cameras are off?
Andrew Zimmern: I’m a normal guy. When I’m in a place that has great burgers and fries, that’s what I eat! Number one, I’m a normal eater; number two, I believe in eating what you find in front of you in that culture. I was just home in New York, where you go to have breakfast at Barney Greengrass and a hot dog in the street; I grabbed a slice of pizza one night going home. It’s New York City, so we went out to a fancy restaurant one night. You do what you do in that city.

IgoUgo: How crucial is adventurous eating to a great travel experience? Does it depend on the destination?
Andrew Zimmern: Here’s my thing—and I mean no disrespect to people who choose to live this way—but I do not understand why you would travel to Beijing, spend a week there in one of the greatest food cities in the world, and waste one of your meals in the Hard Rock Cafe. When you go there—and I’ve walked in there to check it out—it is 90% Americans who are just trying to get a hamburger, and I just, for the life of me, don’t understand it. Now, I’ve been told these are people who would like to see the Great Wall but really don’t like Chinese food, and when I talk to them (and I’ve interviewed some of them), it’s because they’re afraid. I say “Why don’t you ask questions? Why don’t you say to them, just like in an American restaurant, ‘I’d like something simple, just a plain piece of steamed fish?’ You’ll have the greatest dish in the whole world if you say to them, ‘I just want some roast pork or grilled beef.’ They’ll do that.” It staggers me, the complacency that people seem to have—this spoiled attitude that if they don’t get what they’re used to, somehow the experience is tragic. I think that’s why people like cruises and all-inclusive resorts. It’s crazy. I’ve been in Tokyo and gone to Yoshinoya, a noodle chain there. It’s great; I want to experience that. I want to see what all the fuss is about in that country, but the last thing I want to do is go to a Kentucky Fried Chicken in the Philippines.

IgoUgo: Live cockroaches? Really?
Andrew Zimmern: You CAN eat them. There’s a great shot in our pilot: I come walking through the market in Bangkok, and there’s this bug vendor, and he reaches out with a handful of ant larvae, and he pops them in his mouth. He’s got a big pile in his hand, and he’s tossing them in, two or three at a time, the same way you would if you picked up a handful of bar nuts, and to me, that says it all. It’s very commonplace over there. He was throwing them down with all the insouciance of a construction worker at a neighborhood bar, waiting for the game to start.

IgoUgo: How about a spider? We’d have to draw the line there.
Andrew Zimmern: They taste just like crab.

IgoUgo: Really?
Andrew Zimmern
: Well, crab with a little spider in it.

Season Two of Bizarre Foods airs on the Travel Channel every Tuesday night at 9pm. Tune in to see what Andrew is eating, and log on to see how adventurous an eater you are.

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