Yak Penis, Anyone? An Interview With Andrew Zimmern, Host of ‘Bizarre Foods’

andrew zimmern bizarre foodsAndrew Zimmern insists that yak penis “melts in your mouth.” The author, chef and host of the Travel Channel show “Bizarre Foods” also claims that delicacies like snake and deer penis, live frog heart, lizard sake, cow placenta, squirrel brain, sugar cane rat, wildebeast eyeballs and fried tarantulas are all perfectly edible, if not downright delicious. In Madagascar, Zimmern witnessed a circumcision ritual in which the foreskin was eaten, and, though he estimates he’s eaten 60-70 types of animal penis and testicles, he says he draws the line at eating human flesh (see videos below).

Zimmern, 51, is a native New Yorker and graduate of Vassar College who struggled with drug and alcohol addiction in the early ’90s. He was homeless for a year and fed his drug habit by snatching purses and selling the credit card numbers and passports he found. With the help of friends, he moved to Minnesota, got clean, and turned his life around as a chef.

Zimmern claims he’s never gotten sick from any of the bizarre foods he’s eaten and he’s on a mission to get Americans to expand their culinary horizons. In the new season of the show, which premiers on February 11, he’ll feast on baked muskrat, deep fried pig testicles and fermented fish eggs, among other treats. We caught up with Zimmern to ask him how he stomachs all the crap he puts down his gullet.


andrew zimmernI’ve seen you eat some ridiculous things over the years but find it hard to believe that the one food you dislike is walnuts?

Don’t I get to not like something? I just think they’re soapy and gross. I just can’t stand them.

Are there other foods you won’t eat?

That’s it!

But, some of the things you eat just boggle my mind. In Goa, for example, you drank cow urine and ate a fish that hadn’t been refrigerated for more than a year (see video below). What were you thinking?

Terrible, I know.




Does your producer ever suggest something so vile that even you say, ‘No – I am not eating that!’

It’s extremely rare. There’s nothing that happens in the show that I don’t either create or vet or both. I’m usually the one who finds foods in the field and says, ‘We’ve got to include this.’ This show is driven by my curiosity and desire to interpret cultures through food. It’s not driven by a producer saying, ‘This sounds really gross, let’s use that.’ If there is no cultural relevance to something, if it’s just thrill seeking eating, it’s not in our show.

In this upcoming season, you’ll be sampling deep fried piglet testicles, among other things. How were those?

Testicles of animals are delicious. The larger the animal the faster they need to get from the clip into the frying pan. Smaller testicles – roosters, ducks, geese, vermin – are very, very delicate and creamy and are easier to keep fresh. Pig’s balls are great. An animal’s testicles are just another piece of meat that can be cooked the right way and taste very good or cooked the wrong way and they’re not.

You ate those pig balls at a fair in Iowa?

No, we were on a pig farm, Rustik Rooster, in Iowa. Certain breeds of pigs if you let them grow too big with their testicles attached, the meat will develop a gamey flavor as the animal matures. So when the piglets are young, they snip the testicles. We cleaned them, soaked them in a brine, and then breaded and deep-fried them. They were delicious.

You visited a restaurant in Beijing that specializes in animal penises (see video below). How was that?

We used to be able to eat everything because whole animals went into butcher shops but we’re returning to that in some parts of the country. Ten years ago, you couldn’t buy pig livers or lamb kidneys, for example, and now you can. There’s a renewed interest in snout to tail eating and people are understanding that if we are going to eat meat, we need to eat the whole animal to be environmentally sustainable, and people are seeing how delicious that can be as well.




Americans are pretty much the world’s wimpiest eaters aren’t we?

Extremely so. Not even close.

andrew zimmernI wonder if your show has turned people on to some funky foods they otherwise wouldn’t have tried?

It’s hard to say ‘yes’ without sounding like a douchebag but yes, you’re right. The show has been on since 2007. I had been trying to sell this idea well before that. I am extremely proud of what we’ve been able to contribute to the national conversation about food. The show has had a positive impact on helping to remake taste here in America.

Your show is the only one my 5-year-old son and I can agree on.

You should buy him my book. My son is 8 and all the 5-year-old kids in our neighborhood just devour it. No one counted on “Bizarre Foods” being as popular with kids and families as it has been. There are very few shows that a mom, dad, 5-, 10- and 15-year-old can sit down and enjoy together. “Bizarre Foods” is one of them and I’m very proud of that.

My favorite moments on the show are those very rare occasions when you find something that even you can’t stomach. Durian is one of those really challenging foods, right?

There are a lot of foods I have a hard time with. Sometimes I speak in code on camera because I’d rather be a good guest, not this TV guy who is making fun of people who are trying to accommodate, entertain or inform us.




Tell us about a few of the things that have been very hard to swallow?

Lots of things, from fermented skate wing in Korea to fresh animal blood, even little things like eating fresh milk right from a cow, donkey, horse, a reindeer, or a camel. Warm, foamy milk out of an animal’s teat is not how people are used to drinking it. There is a mind over matter aspect to this that is always difficult to deal with. But the practice of tasting and acquiring knowledge allows you to say, ‘that’s not that bad’ and then you get pleasant surprises that I think make for a very interesting eating life. Because I’m most often pleasantly surprised, I’ve learned that you really need to try things.




I can’t recall ever seeing you spit something out. You swallow just about everything, right?

I always do. I can count maybe two or three items I spit out. One was a snack food on the streets of New Delhi that was made with putrid water that I knew would make me sick. Another occasion was in the Philippines when someone offered me a rotten chicken intestine that was raw. In the pilot, I spat out my first taste of durian, which was just horrific. And I learned a valuable lesson.

The orchard manager was so hurt because he was so proud of his country’s favorite fruit. It was quickly smoothed over, but I realized that I wanted to accomplish my goal of broadening peoples’ minds and open them up to the idea that we could share ideas about our differences and resolve them if we could talk about our love of food. And I couldn’t accomplish that goal if I was spitting things out.




I hear you, but there’s no way I could swallow some of the things you eat. Bat, for example. How do you eat a bat?

I ate grilled bat in Thailand and Samoa. I loved it! [In Samoa] there was a giant fruit bat; I shot it out of the sky while standing underneath a breadfruit tree.

You’ve traveled to more than 100 countries, many of them pretty tough places. Watching the Suriname episode, that looked like the hardest travel experience. Was it?

Not enough close – it was by far the most strenuous travel experience. The entire experience was absolutely brutal. We travel with a crew and they need a clean place to sleep and regular meals. I love eating a fried turtle stew or wild pig liver in the jungle, but the crew needs to be looked after in a different way and Suriname was extremely hot, hard living. We had a 52-kilometer hike over a 30-hour period through virgin rain forest. It was extremely brutal.

A little over 20 years ago, you were a homeless drug addict in New York. Could you have envisioned then that you’d be able to turn your life into a success story?

Never in a million years when I was a homeless addict and alcoholic living on the streets in 1990 and 1991 did I think that I would get sober or live to see my 31st birthday. I was scooped up off the streets by friends who did yet again another intervention on me. [They] put me into a treatment facility in Minnesota and I’ve been sober ever since. That is the greatest blessing of my life. That I’m alive is good enough but the fact that I’m in a position to have the type of life that I do is extraordinary and it’s why I place so much emphasis on giving back to the community because my gratitude is immense. I’m the luckiest person in the world.

[Photo credits: The Travel Channel]

10 countries Americans need advance visas to visit

advance visaWe live in an increasingly borderless world and we have access to many countries that were closed (or non-existent) 20 years ago. As reported earlier this week, Americans are especially lucky with access to 169 countries visa free. Still, there are still many countries that Americans need advance visas to visit. Visa applications and processing services can cost several hundreds of dollars and take a lot of time and energy to obtain, so figure in that into your travel planning but don’t let it discourage you from visiting.

Nearly all countries in Africa, the Caribbean, Central America, Western Europe, and the Middle East will give you a visa free or for a fee on arrival. See below for our guide to countries you will need to apply for advance visas, along with fees, useful information and links to consular websites.
Asia

  • China: US citizens pay $130 for tourist visas, single- or multiple-entry up to 24 months from date of application. Keep in mind a trip to Hong Kong or Macau counts as an exit from China, so plan on a multiple-entry visa if you’ll be in and out. You’ll need to send your actual passport in for processing and ideally plan 1-2 months in advance of travel.
  • India: Fees from visa contractor Travisa start at $50 and visas can be valid for up to 10 years, but note that you must have a gap of at least 2 months between entries.
  • Vietnam: Single-entry visas start at $70 and multiple-entry visas are valid for up to one year. Another option for Americans is a single-entry visa on arrival, apply online and pay another stamping fee at the airport.
  • North Korea: Not an easy one for Americans as there are no consular relations between the two countries, but it is possible if you go through a specialist travel agency such as New Korea Tours and realize you’ll be visiting only on a highly-restricted and guided group tour. Note that you’ll have to go through China, requiring another visa of course!
  • See also: Afghanistan, Bhutan, Pakistan

Eurasia

  • Russia: Russian visa rules are quite strict and complicated, so you’ll need to have a solid itinerary set up before you apply as visas are valid for specific dates and not extendable. You’ll need a sponsorship for your visa, typically provided by your hotel or tour operator for a small fee, and you’ll register your visas once in the country. Fees start at $140 and applications should now be filled out online. Tourist visas are generally only valid for two weeks and even if you are just traveling through Russia, you’ll need a transit visa.
  • Belarus: Similar to Russian rules, a letter of invitation must be provided from an official travel agency in order to get a visa. You also have to show proof of medical insurance and financial means (about $15 USD/day, can be demonstrated with credit cards or paid travel arrangements). Tourist visas start at $140 and $100 for transit visas. Gadling writer Alex Robertson Textor is currently planning a trip, stay tuned for his report next month.
  • Azerbaijan: The country changed its visa policy last year, and now Americans must obtain an advance visa. You’ll need an invitation from an Azerbaijan travel agency, then a tourist visa costs $20 and takes 10 business days to process. Transit visas don’t require an invitation letter but should still be obtained in advance of travel.
  • See also: Turkmenistan

Other

  • Australia: Getting a tourist visa is simple and cheap ($20). Apply online at any point in advance and you’ll be verified at the airport. Valid for as many entries as needed for 12 months from date of application.
  • Brazil: Tourist visas are $140 plus $20 if you apply by mail or through an agency. If you are self-employed or jobless, you’ll need to provide a bank account balance, and all applications should include a copy of your round trip tickets or other travel itinerary.
  • Iran: There’s a current travel warning from the US state department, but Rick Steves is a fan of the country and several reputable travel agencies provide tours for Americans. The US consulate notes that some Americans with visas have been turned away, so your best bet is to visit with a group.
  • See also: Nigeria, Paraguay, Saudi Arabia, Suriname

The good news for expats, students studying abroad, and other foreigners with residency is that many countries will allow you to apply in a country other than your home country for a visa. For example, I traveled to Russia from Turkey, getting my visa from a travel agency in Istanbul without sending my passport back to the US. Always check the US state department website for the latest visa information and entry requirements.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Thomas Claveirole.

The world’s top ten most desolate countries

most desolate


According to a Harvard study
, the earth’s population will hit seven billion humans in a few months. Earlier this summer, Gadling labs profiled the effects of increasing populations on finite land resources by showcasing the world’s most crowded islands. The earth is, in its own way, an island, and 21st century humanity will be presented with the challenge of adapting to rising population levels and static resources.

While countries like India have wrestled with the conundrum of feeding and housing booming population levels in Delhi, Kolkata, and Mumbai, the countries on this list bear no similarities to the billion strong Indian subcontinent. These countries are the ones with open space – lots of it. Countries like Greenland and Mongolia may someday be utilized for their vast expanses of open terrain, but today they are simply great places to go when you have tired of other human beings.

So while this extraordinarily hot summer may have included elbowing your way through thronged midtown Manhattan in 100 degree heat or hesitantly inhaling the stink rising off the sweaty crowd at Bonnaroo, this list is intended to take you way away from the crowds. From riding a horse through the empty steppes of Mongolia to exploring the glacial highlands of Iceland, each of these countries offers exercises in sweet sweet solitude. None of these countries have more than ten people per square mile.

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most desolate

10 Mauritania
Location: Northwest Africa
Population: 3,069,000
Population density: 8.2 humans per square mile
Primary Airport: Nouakchott International Airport
Primer: Mauritania is a sand swept country offering desolation and one of the lowest GDPs on the African continent. Even the well-traveled must consult an atlas to correctly place the country on their mental map. Heavily mined in the east with empty beaches in the West, the country is one of the least visited locations on the planet. Credit cards are not readily acceptable, rain is scarce, and desert covers over half of this one time French occupation. Throw in strained African/Arab relations and you get a very challenging country to visit.

most desolate

9 Suriname
Location: Northeast South America
Population: 491,989
Population density: 7.6 humans per square mile
Primary Airport: The Johan Adolf Pengel International Airport
Primer: Suriname is a whisper of a nation on South America‘s north-Atlantic coast. Most Surinamese call the coastal region home, and the interior of the country is an impenetrable rain-forest, inhabited by toucans, parrots, monkeys, deer, and the elusive cock-of-the-rock. 60% of Suriname residents speak Dutch with the rest speaking a collection of fourteen other languages, including Sranan Tongo – a creole dialect. Most tourists come to Suriname for the Amazonian rain-forest, though the northern beaches are surprisingly good — and empty.

most desolate

8 Iceland
Location: North Atlantic Ocean
Population: 318,452
Population density: 7.5 humans per square mile
Primary Airport: Keflavík International Airport
Primer: When multinational aluminum producer Alcoa decided to build a smelting plant in Iceland, they encountered an extraordinary problem. The Icelandic government required Alcoa to pay specialists to inspect and survey the proposed building site for elves, gnomes, trolls, and fairies – so called “hidden people.” The situation strained Alcoa’s management because paying specialists to search for “hidden people” seemed to be a bit of a boondoggle, especially from a shareholder point of view. But, Alcoa paid for the service. The intricate search process took six months. This is the type of place Iceland is – unique and folkloric, awkwardly straddling the modern and ancient worlds.

Iceland’s geographical diversity spans a wide range. From the fires of active volcanoes to glacial carved fjords, Iceland’s landscape provides a full suite of awe-inspiring natural features.

most desolate

7 Australia
Location: South Indian and Pacific Oceans
Population: 22,672,063
Population density: 7.3 humans per square mile
Primary Airport: Kingsford Smith Airport
Primer: Australia truly needs no introduction. Its inclusion on this list stems from the vast open quarter that consumes much of its central and western landmass. Roughly 80% of Australians live in the eastern states, and while Australia is one of the world’s largest countries geographically, the country’s entire population equals that of the Bangkok metropolitan area. This human sparseness is evident to those that venture into the country’s vast interior. As one of the most visited countries in the world, Australia boasts both open space and cosmopolitan metropolitan areas. Also: koala bears.

most desolate

6 Namibia
Location: Southern Africa
Population: 2,108,655
Population density: 6.6 humans per square mile
Primary Airport: Windhoek Hosea Kutako International Airport
Primer: Namibia is home to an abandoned German mining town, the world’s oldest desert, lots of big cats, and an underground lake thought to be the largest on earth. The dunes of the 80 million year old Namib desert rise off of the desert floor like mountains, and cheetahs prowl the nation’s back-country, competing with lions and leopards for bush snacks. Throw in penguins, a 50 ton meteorite, and Ovambo tribesmen that oddly cling to the Lutheran religion, and it is easy to appreciate Namibia’s diverse offerings.

most desolate

5 French Guiana (France)
Location: Northeast South America
Population: 217,000
People per square mile: 6.2 humans per square mile
Primary Airport: Cayenne – Rochambeau Airport
Primer: French Guiana is a throwback to the era of European imperialism. An overseas region of France, the country is the last South American country still considered to be part of Europe. It is almost entirely unsettled wilderness, and one of the most notorious prisons in the world was once located just offshore. The foreboding-sounding Devil’s Island housed a number of prisoners, including Clement Duval and Alfred Dreyfuss. Today, half of the population lives in the capital city of Cayenne, and many also live in the unlikely space-town of Kourou. The city of Kourou is the launch site for European Space Agency satellites. Space-related business accounts for 25% of French Guiana’s GDP and has been a boost to the local economy since Charles de Gaulle opened the space-travel base in 1964.

most desolate

4 Western Sahara
Location: Northwest Africa
Population: 513,000
People per square mile: 5 per square mile
Primary Airport: Hassan I Airport
Primer: Western Sahara, a disputed region in northern Africa, is perhaps the epitome of desolation. With a long coastline lacking credible beaches, a heavily mined military zone, and the topography of a vast arid desert, it is a moonish destination for sure. The temperatures soar during the day and plummet at night. Independent travel is commonly restricted in the region. Literacy is thought to be below 50%. Not exactly selling points, but for those with a taste for sandy adventure, a hatred of tourist hordes, or an interest in political conflict, Western Sahara may just be the country for you.

most desolate

3 Mongolia
Location: Central Asia
Population: 2,754,685
People per square mile: 4.56 humans per square mile
Primary Airport: Chinggis Khaan International Airport (Chinggis Khaan is the Mongolian name for Genghis Khan)
Primer: Mongolia is twice the size of Texas, but with less than three million humans and over sixty million heads of livestock. Nestled between Russia and China, Mongolia is an old kingdom of master horseman and nomadic tribes. The mongols first appear in written history as barbarians who invaded China and prompted the construction of the Great Wall. Today, Mongolians are a welcoming bunch, and the capital city of Ulaanbaatar is stationary – it used to move three times per year.

most desolate

2 Falkland Islands (U.K)
Location:
South Atlantic Ocean
Population: 3,140
People per square mile: .65 humans per square mile
Primary Airport: RAF Mount Pleasant
Primer: With 2,400 people and 700,000 sheep, the Falkland Islands boast a rather robust sheep to human ratio. A storied past includes the Falklands War between Argentina and the United Kingdom, as well as a series of various European occupations. Today, the sleepy chain of 200 islands is visited by expedition cruisers en route to Antarctica. The visitors to the remote island chain are able to observe five different species of penguin, as well as seals, whales, and a rare indigenous bird of prey – the Striated Caracara.

most desolate

1 Greenland (Denmark)
Location: North Atlantic
Population: 56,615
People per square mile: .069 humans per square mile
Primary Airport: Kangerlussuaq Airport
Primer: The Greenland misnomer hearkens back to the age of Erik the Red – a viking known for his issues with Norse law. Having been exiled from both Norway and Iceland, Erik came upon this hulking breast of an island further west. To entice future visitors, he coined the island Greenland, and it stuck. Many Nordic settlers moved to Greenland at his urging, probably stumped by its misleading name – 85% of Greenland is covered by a thick sheet of ice. Allegedly, the southern coastal region is actually very green, especially in the summer months. Last year, Gadling labs sent an explorer to the island to comment on its greenness. His findings? It is, in fact, quite green.

While the national dish of boiled seal meat may fail to conjure up a sudden urge to visit the Arctic island, the glacial cut fjords, polar bears, and colorful houses make visiting Greenland an extraordinary experience.

top flickr image via Atli Harðarson

The many languages of Suriname

If you’ve been following any of the recent language controversy in Philadelphia, you begin to see that a country’s language is a constantly evolving mix of the cultures, customs and the people who use it. Here at home, this interplay is at often work between our country’s de facto official language, English, and an increasingly populous minority of Spanish-speaking immigrants. Now imagine this same language debate among as many as ten languages, and you begin to get a picture of the small South American nation of Suriname as featured in this article.

Suriname is a former Dutch colony on the northern coast of South America. Due to the country’s colonial heritage, the official language is Dutch. But continuous waves of immigrants have left a unique mark on the country’s language culture. This includes a recent influx Brazilians, who speak mostly Portuguese, a small population of Chinese-speakers from the Far East and Indonesian residents of Suriname who speak Javanese. Add to this mix a local language called Sranan Tongo, a dialect passed down from West Africa by many of the former colony’s African slaves, and local indigenous languages like Arawak and Carib. AND, on top of all this, politicians in Suriname are urging the government to adopt English or Spanish as the new national language, hoping to create closer ties to with neighboring countries. Sound confusing? I’m with you.

It remains to be seen how this complicated language issue will play out in Suriname, but it raises some interesting questions. What factors should determine a country’s official language? The U.S. for instance, will always speak English, but what concessions, if any, should be made as our country becomes increasingly multi-lingual? Should we base our decision on economic circumstances? Political? Cultural? It seems to me it’s some combination of the three. What do you think?

[Via the New York Times]

Independence days and elephants

I’ve whipped out my International Calendar to see what might be left to tell about November before it slips away from Eastern Standard Time in a few hours. What I see is a whole lot of independence days and a slew of other politically geared occasions.

  • Nov. 1–Antigua-Barbuda gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1980.
  • Nov. 3–Dominica gained independence from the UK in 1978. Panama gained Independence from Colombia in 1903 and Micronesia gained independence from the U.S. in 1980.
  • Nov. 9–Cambodia gained independence from France in 1953.
  • Nov. 11–Poland gained independence in 1918; Angola gained independence from Portugal in 1975.
  • Nov. 18–Latvia gained independence from Russia in 1918; Morocco from France in 1956.
  • Nov. 25–Suriname gained independence
  • Nov. 28–Mauritania gained Independence from France in 1968 and Albania gained Independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1912, Panama gained independence from Spain in 1821 and East Timor gained independence from Portugal in 1975.
  • Nov. 30-Barbados gained independence from the U.K. in 1966

Other than these, Tonga has had Constitution Day (Nov. 4); Russia, Revolution Day (Nov. 7); Brazil, Republic Day (Nov. 15); and Vanuatu has had National Unity Day, (Nov. 29)

My favorite happening of the bunch of events that occurred this month, though, is the Surin Elephant Round-Up in Thailand.