Andrew Zimmern won’t just try anything once: He’ll try it twice. The host of the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods, Zimmern has eaten poisonous toads, stewed tuna eyes, and raw goat testicles—and that’s barely scratching the surface. We talked to the daring chef-explorer about his culinary adventures and what he’ll be eating this season. Spoiler alert: There are fresh dung beetles on the menu.
TV.com: You can obviously stomach a lot of food that most people wouldn’t even touch. Did you have to train your palate to be more accepting for the show, or were you always this way?
Andrew Zimmern: Oh, no, no, no. I think the really nice thing about the Travel Channel is that the people on our network actually live their brands. I know that, in an age of manufactured television, everybody thinks that people are just hired guns or hosting for the sake of hosting a TV program. But Tony [Bourdain] lives his life the way he does on TV, Sam [Brown] lives her life the way she does on TV, I live my life the way I do on TV. I didn’t have to train myself to do anything. We just had to have a camera follow me around and pick some different locations. From a very young age, I was always interested in foods with stories. I didn’t know it at the time, but that’s what was intriguing me. And I always found it more fun to dine with locals, eat what real locals are eating, go to the shop behind the store, behind the road, behind the mall, rather than go to the place right on the edge of the tourist highway. I believe in going to the last stop on the subway, finding the stuff that’s less traveled. I think that’s what most relevant. The stories on the fringe of a food culture are always the most interesting ones. The name Bizarre Foods came about, but the people who are eating the foods in that given country or region, there’s nothing “bizarre” about it. It’s what they eat.
You must have had a lot of knowledge about exotic food before going into this, but is there anything you’ve found that really surprised you?
All the time. We have a very large crew of very talented people who research and pre-produce the show. I’m lucky enough to be one of those folks, and we spend a lot of time working on these stories. But whenever you go into a situation of living with a tribe, visiting a market, going out with fishermen, you find, see, and have the opportunity to taste things that you would never find, see, or have the opportunity to taste anywhere else. And often times, those are things that you never knew existed, whether it’s a rare invertebrate sea squirt in the Noryangjin seafood market in Seoul, Korea or whether that is an invertebrate that came out of the deep Pacific off the coast of Chile that I found in Santiago. You find things that just leave your jaw on the ground. You just had no idea that anyone ate food like that.
It seems like you’ll try pretty much anything. I know you’re not a fan of durian, but is there anything else that you’ve tried once and just can’t bring yourself to eat again?
“Can’t try again” is something that really isn’t in my vocabulary. I’ll tell you a quick story. When we were in the Philippines, I tried a coconut grub. They sauté them whole; they basically just roll them in a warm pan and eat them. It was really disgusting, puss-like, filled with sour, fermented dead wood, which is what the animal eats. And it tasted like that. That was a not a good taste to me. I’m glad I tried it, the sauce was very nice, it was a great interpretation of that dish, but it wasn’t for me. Three weeks later I’m in Ecuador, the exact opposite part of the world. I mean, you can’t get more on the other side of the world than those two countries. We’re hacking our way through the Amazon jungle and the native guys are hacking apart dead coconut trees, rotted ones, and they’re fishing these little worms out, and it’s the exact same animal. Exact same critter. So I ask how they prepare it, and they’re like, “Oh, we do two things with them.” And I ate them both ways, and both ways were in the Ecuador show. They were 20 times better in Ecuador than they were in the Philippines. In Ecuador, they take the stomachs out, and they crisp the bug, so that you get a texture thing. And when those little guys are cooked the right way, they’re absolutely amazing. So I never say “no” to a second time, because the second time you eat it, it might be different.
In terms of foods [that make me think twice], the generic category is fruit. And I know that sounds weird, there’s thousands of fruits out there, and I love [most of them]. But there’s a handful of fruits that are just mealy and unpleasant tasting and poorly textured, and have some sort of ferocious, rotten smell that I just find more objectionable than a fish head that’s been buried in the ground for a month.
Texture often comes up as a big issue. For some foods, the texture appears to be the hardest part to overcome.
I mean, ask any five-year-old—they’ll tell you the same thing.
Do you have any advice for those of us who’d like to be more adventurous in eating but are turned off by things like a weird texture?
I always tell people, if there’s a weird texture that turns you off, don’t eat it, ‘cause you’re going to very quickly develop a resentment toward trying new things. However, I do believe that if you want to become a better cook, cook two new recipes every single week. Just pick two. Doesn’t matter what they are. Pick up a magazine, a cookbook, a friend, a website, whatever. Pick two new things. At the end of a year, you’ll have 100 new recipes in your repertoire, and if 10 of ‘em stuck with three new techniques mixed in there, you would be so much further along. It's the same thing with eating: You have to force yourself to try new things in restaurants. I know what it’s like. I have my favorite Chinese restaurant. I go there. I have to struggle to choose something different to eat. But I order new things to try them, because you never know when that new thing is going to really surprise you, and that’s the clincher. When there’s something that looks weird, sounds weird, and you order it anyway, that’s when the magic happens. ‘Cause you find out that, half the time, it’s really, really good.
I love trying new food, but the one thing I can’t handle is eye. And you’re always saying how good eyes are.
So I really should give eye a try?
Start with the muscle that’s behind the eye rather than the eyeball itself, because that’s fantastic meat, and it’s really very delicious.
Noted. And speaking of eyes, what will we be, er, seeing you eat on Bizarre Foods this season? What do we have to look forward to?
Oh my gosh, this coming season is our best ever. I venture into the northeastern corner of Thailand, which has some of the weirdest food on the planet, including rats and weasels and things that I never knew existed before. I actually got to pluck real dung beetles out of warm, steaming piles of water buffalo poop and eat them, a threshold that I never thought I’d cross. And that’s just in [tonight's] episode. We go to Mongolia and live with a nomadic family out in the wild and it absolutely floored me. It has impacted me like almost no other trip ever has. We revisit Tokyo, we go to some of my favorite spots on the planet, like Buenos Aires and Baja, Mexico, and rediscover foods and traditions that most people have forgotten about. And we get to venture into the dangerous underbelly of Tijuana and find that the food there is really as fantastic as it is anywhere else in Mexico. It’s a very exciting season.
You’ve said that you’re not forced into this by the Travel Channel—these are foods you want to be eating. But is there any mainstream American food that you really enjoy when you’re not filming?
Oh, yeah. I’m a husband and a father. Turkey burgers on the grill. Last night was something my family and I have dubbed “nasty taco night,” where we actually do tacos out of the box. You brown the meat and sprinkle the seasoning on it. And yes, we make a pretty kick-ass, high-end guacamole. But my five-year-old thinks that tacos out of the box is just about the greatest thing in the whole world. And I indulge him in his food moments that he likes like that, because he comes along with me and eats some of the crazy, nasty, funny stuff that I eat.
You’re able to bring your family along when you travel for the show?
Many times I do.
So it’s not just you doing the eating. Does the crew ever partake in these delicacies as well?
Oh, the crew always eats it.
We never really see their reaction to what you’re eating. How do they take it?
Well, they’re better at it now. It’s like water wearing away at stone. I was just watching a cut of the Thailand episode, and we were in the town of Skoun, which is also colloquially referred to by the Thais as “Spiderville.” And we’ve included some great shots of my sound engineer eating a giant, giant spider, which I think is very exciting. Whenever we can, we do like to showcase them. We don’t often get the chance.
Do you have any advice for those of us who want to try more exotic cuisine but can’t necessarily travel as much as you do?
Every single neighborhood [has a place]. It just depends on where you’re planted. And I always tell people to get up off their couches. There are people who live in—college kids in Knoxville, Tennessee. And I got this question from them and I pointed them up the hill, about an hour’s drive, you can find whole communities that still hunt in the morning for their dinner and hunt in the evening for their breakfast the next day. Trapping possums and squirrels and eating those. Go to any Chinese restaurant in any big city and you’ll find sometimes entire menus that are quote-unquote “specialized” and only available upon request. But they include the tendons and the feet and the stomachs and all the stuff that we eat on the show. So I’m a big proponent of opening your eyes to the world around you, ‘cause our domestic shows are some of the most popular ones that we do. I think people are shocked to find stuff in their own backyards that is so vibrant.
Now that you're going into your fifth season, are you approached on the street more often? What kind of questions do you hear?
Well, the show is very popular and the fans are very passionate, and the show airs in 60-some odd countries. To this day, it’s still very strange for me to be walking down the street in Buenos Aires and get mobbed. I think sometimes the show is more popular in certain South American countries or certain Southeast Asian countries than it is here. It’s always thrilling for me to meet our fans, because I really believe in the show’s mission, which is to open up people’s eyes. And we hear most often from parents about their children—very vocal group of fans. Children who eat spinach because their parents say, “Well, Andrew Zimmern would eat it.” It has changed the way people think about something that they might not like. But I would say that the most common question that I get is usually when I’m at the baseball game with my son, and there’s some guy and gal, and they’re eating a hot dog or a bratwurst of some kind of grilled Italian sausage or whatever. And they look at me while they’re eating and they say something to the effect of, “I can’t believe some of the stuff you eat. How can you eat that raw water buffalo meat underneath that palm tree on that beach in the Philippines?” And I always laugh, because what they’re eating is ground up pig face and beef gut and chicken bone that is packed through a giant, electric food processor, liquidized, ammoniated, and repackaged in tube form. The boneless, skinless breast of chicken in the supermarket is more dangerous than 99 percent of the foods I eat. So that’s usually the most typical conversation I have with our fans, something along those lines.
And then everybody asks me what the worst thing I ever ate was.
And what is that, if you could name it? Still durian?
Durian’s not even in the top five. Worst thing that I ever ate was my mother-in-law’s pork roast last Easter. Very dry. It’s always strange fruits and certain putrefied foods and stuff like that. I’ve tried durian eight or nine times because I famously didn’t like it in one of the first episodes we ever aired, actually the pilot. I’ve since grown pretty accustomed to it. I don’t like it. I don’t care for it. I would never choose to eat it. I don’t think it tastes very good. But I’ve now had it about eight or nine times and I just don’t see what all the fuss is about. Why would you eat a durian when there’s a mangosteen five feet away?
The Season 5 premiere of Bizarre Foods—dung beetles and all—airs tonight at 10pm on the Travel Channel.