Andrew Zimmern, host of the Travel Channel's Bizarre Foods , roams the planet to taste things like dung beetles (Thailand), tarantulas (Cambodia), pickled bull's heart (Russia), and rooster-testicle soup (Taiwan). But Zimmern's goal isn't just to gross us out — there's a message in his madness.
Q: You eat a lot of bizarre foods that you say aren't just tasty but also affordable and sustainable. What are some of your favorites?
A: It's funny, you can paint a thousand pictures, and people still might not call you an artist. But if you eat one bug, then you're the bug-eater for life. On my show, we've done more segments on three-star restaurants in Europe than we have bug-eating scenes, but everyone remembers the bug scenes.
Really, it's all the stuff in between that I want people to pay attention to. For instance, I love the night markets in Taiwan and all over Asia, where you find chicken vendors with skewers of skin and feet and the pope's nose — the little tushy where the tail feathers are — and the neck and all these wonderful parts. And they grill it all and toss it with soy sauce and scallions and rice wine vinegar and chillies, and you just can't stop eating it. It's all the charred little bits of the chicken, and absolutely nothing goes to waste. Every time I turn someone on to it — cameramen, producers — they just light up when they eat it. It's so much better than grilled white-meat chicken breast.
When I was in Bolivia, a very, very poor country, we waited in line at a woman's — I want to say "stand," but really she just has an old oil can that she puts a grill on top of, and she has a bucket with about 20 pounds of paper-thin slices of calves' hearts. She touches the slices on this really hot grill so they're kind of medium-rare, and then she adds a homemade sauce: peanuts, chili, garlic, vinegar. It's only like a nickel for a bowl of this stuff, so you get all these different kinds of people in line together — people who are headed off to the opera standing next to beggars. You watch people, and after the first bite, they almost do this dance; it's so ridiculously good. These are things that everybody in our country runs away from. Don't be afraid of eating calves' hearts, or pig livers, or small little fish with the heads on them that come out of the Adriatic Sea and the Venetian lagoon and are deep-fried and served in little wine bars.
Q: How do you define sustainable eating?
A: I was with a small hunting-and-gathering tribe of Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert in Africa, maybe 24 people, and one of the shamans told me they never kill any animal bigger than what would feed their group for one day. While I was there, they killed a porcupine. It was huge, maybe 60 pounds. They had enough for breakfast, lunch, and dinner that day. And by evening, they were turning the porcupine quills into jewelry.
Compare that to the waste that comes with the way we eat fish in this country. Fisheries around the world are in crisis. Giant conglomerates have been funding devastating practices, most notably with shrimp farms in Southeast Asia, where they're doing tremendous damage to the coastline to supply the American food system. It's a crazy, crazy game being played around the world. One of the easiest solutions would be to simply eat more small, whole fish — the way they do in every country but ours. America is the only country that rips off the head of a shrimp before it gets frozen. I just don't understand that. I also don't understand why goat, which is so popular around the world and is absolutely delicious, isn't popular here. If we could introduce one more meat protein into the system, it would ease so much pressure from the pork-beef-poultry-lamb machine we've created.
Q: You've mentioned "culinary anthropology."
A: Well, consider that in many countries, people live with three generations of their family in a single home, and the three generations are eating completely different diets. I was in Hanoi having lunch with a family, and I was eating silkworm larvae, wok-fried with scallion and lemongrass. A delicious dish. The grandmother was eating and cooking this dish, and she also did an eel dish that was just fantastic. The parents were eating eel but not the silkworm larvae — that was Grandma's old-school food — and the kids were basically eating none of it. And the reason was that Jollibee , a Filipino fast-food chain, had come to Vietnam, and these kids had gotten turned on to things like fried chicken. As they say in Paris, le hot dog is becoming king. That bugs me. I just can't shake it. But I also think it's fascinating, which is why I try to record all this stuff.
Q: Why do you think some of the things you eat gross out Americans so much?
A: When a restaurant serves a whole mackerel, or a seared whole rainbow trout with almonds and parsley, and there's a person at the table who says, "Oh, could you take the head off, please?" they're missing the point. There's meat in the head; the cheeks are fantastic. The restaurant is buying whole fish, they're using less labor and less energy. I know it seems like a little thing, but it's symbolic to me.
I am the least preachy, pulpity person. Some of my friends would say I'm the last person to be carrying this message. I think the degree to which we ignore the food that the world eats is the degree to which we separate ourselves from other people. And the more we insist on boneless, skinless chicken breasts wrapped in plastic in the supermarket, the more we condemn ourselves to a very boring, inarticulate food life, and the more we damage our environment irreparably.
I often find myself defending eating some of the stuff I eat. Someone will say, "I can't believe you ate that tarantula in Cambodia," or "I can't believe you ate that raw water buffalo liver in Thailand." I say, "Why? It was a beautiful, fresh piece of meat, or bug, or whatever. Someone's grandma made it for me. What's wrong with that? It's the healthiest thing you could eat!" And this person is usually eating a hot dog at a sporting event while accosting me. I say, "Well, look at what you're eating. You don't even know what's in that thing!" I love hot dogs, but it just confounds me that people limit themselves the way we do in this country.
One of the smartest men I know and adore, Michael Pollan , defined it perfectly: "Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food." That's what I do, except my great-grandmothers are Pacific Islanders, tribal Africans, and South American shamans.
Q: Has eating bizarre things shifted your relationship with food?
A: It's not just about food. When I'm sitting in a little boat on the edge of Lake Tonle Sap in Cambodia with a family that makes a few dollars a day from fish that they gather and try to sell at a local market — and sometimes they go hungry and sometimes they don't — and I share a meal with them, the gratitude I get there, how I'm filled up spiritually, is absolutely an addictive, unquenchable thing that I just can't find anywhere else. And when I show that on TV, I like to think that maybe it'll persuade a kid in Cleveland to try broccoli for the first time, or to be a little more accepting if the kid sitting next to him in class has different-colored skin or speaks with an accent or maybe is in a wheelchair. The most important thing I can do is to try to raise awareness to the idea that practicing contempt prior to investigation is the most dangerous of human traits. That is at the very core of why I do what I do.
Consider this: Africans think it's weird that we eat cheese. We let milk rot and dry into little squares. It's delicious, but I know Africans who can't believe we eat it. They tell me, "That's crazy," while they're eating a cricket.