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]

Andrew Zimmern to share travel recipes and tales for Food & Wine magazine

asdf Food & Wine magazine announced today the company will bring TV personality and chef Andrew Zimmern on board for a new weekly column, “Andrew Zimmern’s Kitchen Adventures.”
Known for his willingness to eat just about anything-insects, porcupine, you-name-it-Zimmern will forgo chowing down grotesque eats and instead show off his skills as a home cook. But never fear: the host of Travel Chanel‘s Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern hasn’t forgotten where he travels have taken him. In fact, the recipes he makes in his kitchen for the Food & Wine column will be largely inspired by his travels, such as Sweet and Sour Bangkok-Style Chicken with Red Chiles, a dish he first tasted in a small café in Malaysia, or a rendition of Almond and Orange Cake with a Poached Plum Compote, which Zimmern first discovered in Spain in the Seventies.
“I’m excited to share these memories, experiences and recipes with Food & Wine readers,” says Zimmern, who will also share holiday dishes that reflect his childhood memories and family traditions. Although there is a possibility we might try his grandmother’s recipe for Chopped Chicken Liver, we’re hoping he won’t feature beating frog hearts or hen’s uterus in any of his recipes.

Talking Travel: Andrew Zimmern discusses bizarre foods

Andrew Zimmern is best known as the host of Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern. But before he was traveling the globe eating glands, connective tissue and anuses, he was an acclaimed chef, writer and expert in Chinese cuisine. The new season of his Travel Channel program premieres later this month and, in anticipation of that, he chatted with us about a wide range of topics.

When we started our conversation, Andrew was in an editing room helping his producers identify meats from an episode filmed in Argentina. He pointed out thymus glands and sweet breads as easily as you or I would point out our friends in a photograph. During the rest of our discussion, we touched on subjects ranging from his iron constitution to the American culinary psychology to just how educational his television program actually is.

So what are Andrew Zimmern’s favorite foods? What is the one thing that he absolutely cannot stand eating? And what other Travel Channel host does he have a not-so-secret crush on? Andrew Zimmern shared it all with us.Mike Barish: Most people know you as the guy who eats crazy things. But what are your creature comfort foods? Are there simple things that, at the end of the day, just make you happy?

Andrew Zimmern: Oh god, yes. Black licorice; really, really, really good cinnamon lollipops. I’m a nice Jewish boy from New York. Matzo ball soup or chopped chicken liver or brisket or something like that is my go to meal. I have a 5 year old boy. I have a rekindled love affair with Cap’n Crunch. That I thought died with my college pot smoking, freakazoid days.

MB: It’s common for people to say, “This tastes like chicken.” Is saying “x tastes like chicken” the lazy way to describe wild foods or do you notice similarities in the way certain things taste?

AZ: I will tell you that frog has more in common with chicken just as iguana has more in common with chicken, snake has more in common with chicken. It’s all of those reptiles fall into the “taste like chicken” category. The reason is that they are very lean, white fleshed meats with a fairly benign flavor. Chicken has a deeper, richer, better flavor than those animals because the lack of fat in those animals. Fat is flavor in many instances. Those reptiles have a very thin, tinny sort of flavor that halfway through the chew the flavor evaporates. There’s nothing left. It’s how blindfolded I would always be able to tell I’m eating a reptile. I think that generations of people said, “oh, what’s it taste like?” “Kind of like chicken.” Now it’s a joke. “Tastes like chicken.”

MB: Do you think people actually dislike a lot of the things that you’re eating or they just can’t get past whatever psychological block they have?

AZ: No. Well it’s certainly more the latter, but I will also tell you that the biggest reason is the 3rd item: they’ve never tried it. When I’m in Chile, and I’m with Mapuche Indians and we bleed out a lamb, and they stir some lime juice and cilantro and onion into fresh lamb’s blood and take a spoon and pass the bowl around while it’s still warm, that’s hardcore. I don’t know who gets to have that experience. I’m sure people are shocked. I was shocked, and I was there. I knew it was coming, and I was shocked. What I do for people is that I can sit there and show them with pictures and tell them with the sound of my voice what the experience is like and what’s happening.

I think that a lot of people practice contempt prior to investigation.

MB: Where do you think that fear comes from and have you found that it’s uniquely American?

AZ: Oh it’s not uniquely American at all, although the rest of the world is more familiar with being more open-minded. Our country is the only country in the world, let’s just talk about food for a second, that eats from the center, expensive cuts of the animal regardless of how much money you make. We just come up with different grades of meat to separate the steaks that poor people eat from the steaks that rich people eat. It’s ludicrous. All we do is porterhouse and strip loin and rib eye. We don’t eat the hooves and the head and stuff except when we grind them up and put them in hot dogs and don’t tell people what it is. We eat boneless, skinless chicken breast. We take shrimp and throw away the head and the shell, where all the flavor is, and freeze the meat from the tail and worship that as if it is some kind of iconic ingredient. We’re the only culture in the world that does that. It’s completely backwards.

MB:
But there are adventurous Americans, yes?

AZ: I think the best news in the whole world is that recently there has been a spate of reportage, I’ve even blogged about it, Tweeted and Facebooked about it, of all the different people who are taking pictures of their foods or documenting their food life.

MB: The food porn.

AZ: Correct. Flickr has a billion pictures that people download every year of what they’re eating. I think it’s the greatest thing in the whole world because people get on the internet and are like, “Oh my god, that’s tongue? That looks good.” That many people can’t be wrong.

I find it really interesting when I’m in China, donkey is a very common meat. It’s as common as beef or lamb, especially in the region that Beijing is the central hub to. Donkey meat is delicious. If Americans tasted it blind, it would be the most popular new meat in our country. It’s lean, it’s delicious, it tastes like veal, it cooks like beef, the skin is edible, it’s just glorious. It’s a certain species of the smaller donkey, and it’s just amazing. It is delicious. We can’t get people to eat goat in this country.

MB: Right, right. Would you say the biggest hurdle for people is the psychological, the taste or the texture?

AZ: The biggest issue with America is the psychology of it. I was in Thailand, and a lot of places that I travel to, the people eat bats. Here in our country, our kids are brought up with vampire mythology and Halloween mythology where bats represent disease and scary things and all the rest of that. If we didn’t have those messages in our culture, we would be eating foods like bats (assuming that there were edible ones around).

MB: Do you look back at the popularity of Fear Factor in the last decade where eating those things was seen as a challenge that merited winning thousands of dollars? Is that the psychology?

AZ: No, I think Fear Factor was the result of the net of it all. They were playing off our difficulties with psychology. What bugged me about Fear Factor – and believe me at one point before I had my job on Travel Channel and that show first came out, I was like, “I could win that show. Are you kidding me?” – they preyed on the worst fears in our psychological profiles. Not only did you have to eat the worms, but you had to lie in a coffin covered with them. You know what I mean? Those kinds of jeopardy shows where they put you in a difficult situation, I think, exploit that psychology. The fact that people had such a problem with it proves the point I’m making.

MB: Everybody watches you eating all these foods and most of the time having no problem eating them, but how is your GI tract afterward? What has caused you the worst bowel difficulties after the fact?

AZ: What a delicate way to phrase that question.

MB: I did my best there. Thank you.

AZ: I was given the job of hosting this program because I actually lived that way. All they had to do was send the TV crew with me and send me to a couple of more exotic places that I couldn’t afford to go or had time to go on my own. I say that to answer that question because by the time I got to filming my adventures, I had already been around the world a dozen times. I had never gotten sick. I don’t think if I was a person who had a lot of food-borne illness issues, etc. that I would even say “yes” to the offer. I don’t get sick. I’ve built up some resistance. I’ve eaten enough things in enough places. I even drink the water in countries where I tell other people not to.

I’ve had two nights in the last five years where I’ve been up all night sick, wrapped around the toilet. Both of those nights were in U.S. cities after eating seafood that when it went down my mouth, I was like, “oh that’s a bad mussel” or “oh that clam may come back to hurt me.”

MB: Anthony Bourdain takes the piss out of you fairly frequently on his show and in interviews. Do you guys have a good relationship? What do you think about him lobbing jabs at you every now and then? Is that a sibling rivalry relationship?

AZ: Yeah. It’s so funny. I think it’s also that those kinds of things are the most reportable, funniest bits. We both give each other a lot of crap in our shows. I think he’s been lucky enough to say them under circumstances where the lighting is better, and it fits within the context of what they’re doing. I’m always yelling at my editors and producers, “God, I said that funny line.” We both give each other a lot of grief in our shows. That’s very much sibling oriented. We’re very friendly off-camera. Last time I was in New York, my wife and I were with Tony and his wife. We’re friends.

MB: What would you say is more detrimental or more dangerous for people: eating things that you eat or the amount of fast food that Americans regularly eat?

AZ: Not even close, the amount of fast food. Not even close. I go to a lot of sporting events with my son. We’ll be sitting there, and I’ll get recognized and somebody comes up to me and they’re eating a hot dog or a bratwurst because we’re in Minnesota. They say to me, “I can’t believe some of the stuff you put in your mouth. How can you eat that barbecued pig snout?”

My response to them is, “when I was in the Philippines, and they butchered that pig and took the snout and grilled it, steamed it and grilled it again, chopped it up and made that snout hash and I ate it, that meat had never seen the inside of a refrigerator. It had never seen pesticides. It had never seen growth hormones. That was fresh, gorgeous porky pork the way God meant it to be eaten. And it was delicious.

The pork that you’re eating, sir, is ground up, it’s five years old. It was liquidized. It was ammonia-ized. It was food processed.It was loaded with filler and chemicals, and the government says they don’t have to tell you 25% of what’s in it. What’s worse? To me, it’s not even close.

The diet of the average American is universally mocked and ridiculed for good reason. Our culture has created a part of a food life for many Americans that is unconscionable. Our show is entertainment, but there is a very graspable message in Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern that I think is the most important message of anything we do.

MB: And what’s that?

AZ: When you broaden out the number of, for example, protein choices in your life, and start eating little fish as opposed to the American way which is just tuna, salmon and halibut and shrimp, when you start to eat 20 different types of red meat, not just two, you then spread out your choices and you ease pressure on farms and take away the power of these giant multinationals that now produces 75% of our food in this country. You actually level the playing field, and you’re eating more, in the words of one of my idols, Michael Pollan, “you’re eating foods that your grandmother would recognize.”

MB: Do you think that some of the goofiness and schtick of your show leads to people to not realize that it is as educational and enriching as other programs? There are educational principles to your show, but because you’re in a loud shirt and you’re kind of yucking it up, people go, “oh it’s just shock for shock’s sake.”

AZ: Yes. I couldn’t agree more. I do that, I wouldn’t say purposely, yeah I would. I do that purposely. When I first pitched this show to Travel Channel, I knew that I wanted to do a show that was 80% entertainment and 20% message and not the opposite because if I did the opposite in that day and age, I wouldn’t have gotten the larger audiences to tune in. The greatest success of my program is that kids, parents and families are addicted to it. I know that in my heart that there is a generation of kids who have watched me since day one who are more open-minded eaters. I think the impact of shows like my show, like Tony’s [Bourdain] show and others like it, in ten years from now is going to be even bigger and more manifest because I think there are a lot of people, and I hear it all the time, the kids didn’t eat vegetables and they made a game of it – Andrew Zimmern would eat that. I get hundreds of those letters a week and emails. It’s very powerful.

Plus, we have a kids’ special that’s coming out this coming year that we made awhile back that people are just going to fall in love with. It allows us to tell that message with a bigger exclamation point at the end of the sentence.

MB: Is there anything that you won’t eat either because you just don’t like the taste or texture? Is there anything that you were more than willing to try and after the fact said, “Okay, good. I tried it and I never want it again”?

AZ: Walnuts.

MB: Really?

AZ: I hate them.

MB: Why?

AZ: I’ve tried them a million ways. They just don’t agree with me. They got a bad aftertaste. I eat every other nut on the planet.

MB: But not walnuts? So nutcrackers in the Christmas stockings for you?

AZ: No, can’t stand them.

MB: Another Gadling writer, Aaron Hotfelder, wrote an open letter to you when your show started its second season. It basically said, “I love the show. I love what you do, but every place you go, you’re the only person wearing shorts.”

AZ: Correct.

MB: So, what’s with the khaki shorts?

AZ: Oh my god, that’s hysterical. What happens is, and I’ll just give you an example. You go to Morocco and you’re in the desert. Yes, it is hot and all the rest of that stuff, but you have to remember that I have to carry trunks and trunks of gear and clothing and equipment when I travel. We’re gone 2-3 weeks at a time shooting multiple shows. I’ll be in Alaska one week and then in the deserts of Morocco the next. Television is not a fancy business. I don’t have stylists and handlers and all the rest. It’s me, a producer, a couple of camera guys, a driver, a scout, a PA to carry some gear and maybe a security guy in a dicey area to watch the equipment. So it’s basically a process of elimination: what can I use that I can transport the easiest with the most people? So that’s really what it comes down to. Second of all, when you’re working 18, 19 hours a day and you’re in vans, you go for comfort. So it’s also a comfort thing as well. I just find it really simple. The other thing that we actually talk about and think about a lot is that we have enough distracting stuff on the show. Leopard print type pants and white go-go boots is not – as much as I love to be an individual – it’s maybe a little too distracting. It really is.

I never had to answer that question. It’s a very good one. It’s just because it is easy to travel with, easy to clean and has good pockets.

MB: Are you familiar with the game Fuck, Marry, Kill?

AZ: Yes.

MB: Okay, so Fuck, Marry, Kill and the 3 candidates are: Tony Bourdain, Samantha Brown, and Bear Grylls.

AZ: Oh my god. Oh my god. Well Tony I would marry. Absolutely in half a heartbeat. I’ve made no bones about it. Samantha is a very dear friend of mine, and both of us are very happily married, I would definitely make a run at her if we were both single. She is just an absolute pistol, and I just admire the heck out of her. I adore her. I have very publicly said that I have a huge crush on Samantha. Yeah, so that’s a no brainer. The funny thing about Bear is that if I didn’t know him, I would have obviously put him in the kill category. I love his show. I watch his show. I’ve recorded it since day one. I just think he’s fantastic. But he’s even nicer in real life. He’s one of the nicest, most genuine, good human beings, and I’ve gotten to spend a decent amount of time with him. He’s just a gem of a human being. So I would rather not fuck, marry or kill Bear Grylls. I’d rather just hang out with him.


The fourth season of Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern
premieres on the Travel Chanel on April 26 at 10:00pm E/P.

Photo courtesy of Travel Channel.

Gadling Take Five: Week of June 14-June 20

Food was once again on our minds here at Gadling. Actually, a lot was on our minds, but almost everyone had something to say about food.

  • Grant wanted to know if you could eat what Andrew Zimmern eats on Bizarre Foods. Grant couldn’t. I’m not particularly fond of intestines either.
  • Matthew told us what foods to avoid in Japan.
  • Erik told us how to not lose food because of motion-sickness.
  • Iva told us how the Chinese are renaming their food so we don’t get sick from the names.
  • And, Kelsey reminded us to ask for the bill in a restaurant in Mexico so after you’ve eaten, you can pay.

Oh, and one more. If you’re around Heather in the galley of an airplane, keep your hands out of those lemons!