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]

Hangover Cures: A Global Primer

elephantNew Year’s Eve is fast approaching, so what better time to provide a list of hangover cures from around the world? Our friends at Alice Marshall Public Relations in New York asked some of their clients about local versions of hair-of-the-dog. Unsurprisingly, the preferred remedies all have a distinctly regional flavor. Here’s to a headache-and-nausea-free January 1!

St. Barts
On this notorious party island, the secret is to stay awake. Pull an all-nighter, and when “the bakery” in St. Jean opens, score a croissant straight out of the oven. Devour it, cross the street and jump into the ocean.

Thailand
Although I’ve found coconut water to be the best hangover helper in existence, Thailand has a more original cure. According to the Anantara Golden Triangle resort, Black Ivory Coffee (aka elephant dung coffee, which I believe puts kopi luwak to shame) is what does the trick. Elephants feed on coffee beans, which then ferment in their gastrointestinal tract.

The beans are then plucked out by the mahouts (elephant keepers) and their wives, roasted, and sold for approximately $1,100 per kilogram. But wait, there’s more! Eight percent of all sales are donated to the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation. No reason is given for why this cure supposedly helps, but I’m thinking this folklore is full of … you know.
coconut waterMaldives
As if being in the glorious Maldives weren’t cure enough, Naladhu luxury resort has my kind of cure in mind (that’s me, right, killing a hangover in Mexico). They provide queasy guests with fresh coconut water from their own groves. All those electrolytes along with potassium stop hangovers in their tracks.

Cape Town
According to chef Reuben Riffel of One&Only Cape Town, a swank urban resort, you need to drink yourself better. His solution is an alcohol-free tonic consisting of one cup of chilled Rooibos tea (an indigenous plant), a half-cup ginger ale, and 1 ounce of lemongrass simple syrup. Top with soda water, and a dash of Angostura bitters.

Santa Fe
After many visits to Santa Fe, I’ll swear by the local’s cure for a long night. A green chile cheeseburger is the prescription, although I’d add that a bowl of great posole, green chile, or a breakfast burrito also work wonders.

Nantucket
Nantucket Island Resorts recommends a brisk swim in Nantucket Sound, followed by a visit to Brant Point Grill for a Lobster Bloody Mary and lobster kabobs. Now we’re talking.

Have a safe, happy, hangover-free New Year’s!

[Photo credits: elephant, Flickr user rubund; coconut, Laurel Miller]

Intrigued by Black Ivory Coffee? Watch this video!


‘The Perennial Plate’ Partners With Intrepid Travel For Online Food Documentary Series

food documentariesI’ll be the first to raise my hand and say I despise most of the food shows currently on television and online. That’s why I got so excited when I heard about “The Perennial Plate,” a weekly online documentary series, “dedicated to socially responsible and adventurous eating.”

That angle by virtue does not a good show make. But Daniel Klein and Mirra Fine, the team behind the show, have the ideal background to make this concept work, which it does. Throw in a collaboration with well-regarded Australian adventure company Intrepid Travel, and you have the makings of a cult classic.

In case you’re thinking this is another “No Reservations,” or “Bizarre Foods,” the focus is different in that the duo explores the increasingly connected global food system, minus the machismo. That said, there’s plenty for those more interested in armchair travel.

Klein has an impressive resume as a chef, filmmaker and activist, while “camera girl” Fine has a background in graphic design and writing, and has previously released short, food-based films. Together, the two have completed two seasons. The first took place over the course of a calendar year in their home state of Minnesota. The second was filmed across America, taking viewers on a journey of “where good food comes from, and how to enjoy it.”

Season three, which premieres in October (check their site for dates), is the first since joining with Intrepid Travel. The season kicks off with a tour of Vietnam. Future episodes will include China, Japan, India, Argentina and Italy.


“Food” preparation around the world: a video round-up

Every savvy traveler knows that meals that are considered taboo (pets), weird (ingredients that are still alive), or gross (insectia, specific animal innards) at home are likely what’s for dinner elsewhere in the world. Even if the food or dish isn’t unappetizing by our standards, its means of preparation is often spectacle-worthy.

Thus, the following collection of videos, all devoted to the creation of specific regional delicacies from around the globe. Check them out: next time you down a shot of mezcal or snack on some fried grasshoppers, you’ll understand that someone, somewhere, put a lot of hard work into their preparation. Bon appetit!

In Mongolia, where food and other resources are scarce, innovation is crucial:




Making noodles is an art form in many parts of the world, including Xian Province in northern China:

A boss iced tea vendor in Thailand:



Too tame? Witness a testicle (from unidentified animal species; most likely goat or sheep) cooking competition in Serbia:



The “Holy Grail for [beef] head tacos,” in Oaxaca…



Cooking up grasshopper in Zambia:



Preparing maguey (a species of agave, also known as “century plant”) for mezcal in Mexico:


Brace yourself for the most disturbing food prep yet, courtesy of the United States:

Got goat? A cultural exploration of the other red meat

goat meatThere are goat people, and then there…aren’t. We’re like dog people, except we can’t carry the objects of our obsession in our purse. There aren’t city parks dedicated to goats.

I grew up with goats because my brother and I raised them for 4-H. When we got our first dairy goat in the mid-’70’s, my mom tapped her inner hippie, experimenting with making yogurt from the prodigious amounts of milk produced by our doe. And while no one in my family could be accused of squeamishness, it was an unspoken rule we’d never use our goats for meat. Although my mom claims it was because she preferred to donate the young bucks to Heifer Project International, I now realize she just didn’t want to see those adorable little kids sizzling on our grill.

Now that I’m older and more gluttonous, I know that goat makes for some fine eating, whether it’s mild, milky-tasting suckling kid, or adult animals cooked down into flavorful braises (think think less gamey mutton). Yet, while a staple in Latin America, Africa, the Caribbean, Middle East, Central Asia, and parts of Europe, goat has never been popular in the United States outside of specific ethnic communities.

In the last decade, however, goat has been getting more respect. Small goat ranches sell meat at select farmers markets nationwide, and amongst culinary cognoscenti goat is all the rage at select, locally-focused butcher shops and high-end restaurants. I’ve noted that goat as a mainstream ingredient is most popular in the Bay Area–something I attribute to the large Hispanic population, the sheer number of farmers markets, and the willingness amongst chefs, ranchers, and consumers to try new things. Ditto in New York, where goat was once reserved for divey ethnic restaurants of the outer boroughs.

Some chefs, like former “Top Chef” Season four winner/2011 Food & Wine “Best New Chef” Stephanie Izard, owner of Chicago’s The Girl & The Goat, prominently feature caprine preparations on their menus, even if most of their colleagues eschew it (fellow Chicagoan Rick Bayless, Mexican cuisine guru/owner of Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, and Xoco also uses goat). Jonathon Sawyer, another “Best New Chef” alum (2010; The Greenhouse Tavern, Cleveland), is also a fan of goat, and utilizes meat from nearby Cuyahoga Valley.

Why is goat meat so prevalent in other cultures, but not our own? Or, as popular TV host/chef Andrew Zimmern puts it: “Goat is like soccer: it plays well everywhere else in the world but the U.S..”

[Photo credit: Flicker user onkel_wart]goat meatThe reason is that goat is one of the most widely (and oldest) domesticated animals in the world. They thrive in harsh environments, on sparse vegetation, so they’re easy, inexpensive keepers. They’re small, nimble, highly intelligent, and fairly disease-resistant, and are thus lower maintenance than cows or sheep. They provide an ample supply of milk–which can then be sold as cheese, yogurt, or butter–and they’re also a source of skin, fuel (their dung), and meat. There are specific breeds meant for meat (the Boer, for example) or dairy (the prolific Nubian), but most animals in the developing world are multi-use, or serve several functions in their lifespan. Once they can no longer bear kids and produce milk, they become a source of food and hide.

Despite the widespread consumption of goat, they’re also a symbol of status and pride for the millions of nomadic peoples worldwide.The more goats (or other livestock) one has, the more affluent one is. These animals are also treated as members of the family, sharing living quarters and often treated almost as pets. Yet their purpose in life is always at the forefront: to provide sustenance and income for the family and community.

As Americans, we tend to anthropomorphize animals, even the ones we eat (think “Babe,” Charlotte’s Web, and the prevalence of cute little lambs on baby clothes). Goats get a bad rap in this country, due in part to their mythological and biblical associations with the underworld or Satan. They’re supposedly smelly, mean, and will eat the clothes off your back given half a chance.

Allow me to clarify. Goats are actually very tidy animals, although uncastrated bucks most definitely stink beyond description. As for their legendary appetite, goats are innately curious by nature, because they’re intelligent. Thus, they tend to nibble, and yes, sometimes your clothing (or, if you’re a journalist, your notes) might be included. But tin cans, nails, and humans are not in their repertoire. The reason goats are widely used for brush and fire control is their ability to eat and digest brambles and other tough plants most ruminants are unable to tolerate. As for their ornery reputation, goats–being very bright–can have personality clashes with some people (usually those who dislike them).

“Goat is Great”goat meat
In June, I watched Zimmern do a seminar and cooking demo called “Goat is Great” at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. The three-day festival of eating and drinking is full of talks, tastings, and demos celebrating the glory of pork, rum, budget and collector wines, and cooking with animal fat, but this is the first time goat has made the itinerary. Naturally, I was first in line.

Zimmern, who is far less goofy and more edgy and endearing in person, began his talk by touting the glories of goat. Not only is it healthy (high protein, and leaner and lower in cholesterol than beef or lamb), it’s affordable, versatile–he frequently substitutes it for lamb–and sustainable, because it’s not factory farmed. “To the degree that we eat more goat, and only a little fish, we slow the impact of factory farms’ pressure on the environment,” Zimmern explained. The best way to find goat is to request it. “Ask your butcher to carry it. Start telling your local farmers markets that you’d like to see it. You’d be amazed at what’s growing and being raised near your town.”

We watched Zimmern whip up three different preparations of goat, based upon dishes he’s eaten on his travels. The first was a tartare, a contemporary riff on a traditional Ethiopian dish, tere sega, which is usually made with raw beef. He seasoned the meat with crushed berbere (a spice mixture of chile and spices), egg yolk, lemon juice, minced shallots, chopped celery leaves, Dijon mustard, Worcestershire, and minced caper.

Next, we watched rock star butcher Josh Applestone of New York’s Fleischer’s Meats break down a goat carcass in record time, to provide Zimmern with some cuts and offal for his remaining dishes (FYI, Fleischer’s does not carry goat at either of its locations, and based on the tone of the employee I spoke with, they’re really sick of being asked this question).

Zimmern also featured an Italian red wine-braised goat shoulder, before ending things with a globally beloved dish: meat on a stick. “All over the world I’ve eaten skewered goat,” he said, before demonstrating a Tunisian twist on Italian spiedini, or kebabs. He marinated chunks of meat, liver, and kidneys in garlic, olive oil, and homemade harissa (a Tunisian chile paste) before grilling them and finishing the dish with lemon juice and parsley.
goat meat
Where to get goat
Ethnic (Hispanic, African, and Caribbean) and halal markets and butcher shops
Farmers markets
Butcher shops that emphasize local sourcing and humane livestock management

What to do with your goaty offerings? Here’s some tips: throw shoulder cuts on the grill, pan fry chops, and braise shank, riblets, and leg steaks. Bear in mind that goat (especially kid) is lower in fat than most meats, so be careful not to overcook it if you’re barbecuing or using other dry-cooking methods.

[Photo credits: Berber, Laurel Miller; carcasses, Flickr user Mr. Fink's Finest Photos; heads, Flickr user Royal Olive]

Teaching Children Responsibility with Goats