Talking travel with Bizarre Foods host Andrew Zimmern

I’m here with Andrew Zimmern, the wildly popular host of Travel Channel’s hit series, Bizarre Foods. He’s a personality that needs no introduction–at least around the Gadling water cooler. You could even say he’s our Paris Hilton.

His show–which is about what it sounds like–has just finished its second season, with episodes spanning the globe from Iceland and Bolivia to St. Petersberg and Delhi (check out our episode guides here). Beyond the tube, he’s a celebrated food writer, dining critic, radio talk-show host, and chef. For more Andrew, check out his blog.

In this exclusive interview, Andrew dishes on everything from director Ang Lee’s stinky tofu fetish to his NYC School of Hot Dog Consumption Theory.

Before Bizarre Foods, how much jet-setting around the world did you get to do?

Plenty! I was lucky enough to come from a family that always traveled and placed a premium on pursuing singular experiences, eschewing resorts in favor of spending weeks skiing in Europe, driving ourselves around and eating in local restaurants and in homes with people we met along the way. I am a paler version of my Dad, the original “food freak” in the family, who introduced me to the concept of a tasting menu at Paul Bocuse in 1974. I am eternally grateful.
When you’re not taping a show, would you be eating any of these bizarre foods? Which ones are now part of your palate? (I’ve heard you gush about those sparrows several times.)

Of course I would, assuming it was available and fresh. Also important are the intangibles like setting and ambience. It’s hard to duplicate tuna collars (10 pounders!) grilled over coconut husks, served with sautéed banana flowers, tossed with braised whelks and a crispy wild pig. All this is available here in the U.S., but it’s not the same as pulling up a chair to a table that’s groaning with the stuff at Kinabuch’s in Palawan in the Philippines.

What happens is that being courageous and willing, and 5,000 miles from home, makes you open your eyes to the foods available in your own back yard. I have been way more enthusiastic about beaver, moose, raccoon, possum, squirrel and other local treats because of what I eat when I am away from home. My son and I have caught lots of grasshoppers in our back yard, but we still have not eaten any of those.

You’ve mentioned that you stop at stinky tofu. Is that really bad? I think I have a jar sitting around somewhere, it’s like the Chinese version of Nutella right?

Way worse…Here’s the deal: I ate stinky tofu every day for a snack in Taipei, it was awesome; two days in the briny sludge, then grilled, split and stuffed with pickled cabbage and brushed with sweet peanut sauce. It was amazing. Then on day six, I ate 14-day-old stinky tofu at Dai’s House of Unique Stink…it was horrific. After 14 days in putrid vegetable matter, the tofu is as close to rotting flesh as anything I have ever seen or tasted. I got one bite down, but could not get another one past my tongue. There’s a lot of confusion out there since many people have only seen the two-day stuff and wondered what the big deal was. Director Ang Lee has Dai’s send him stinky tofu all over the world when he is on location. He’s a better man than I am.

What other foods do you stop at, and say, “no way, I’m not getting paid enough for this?”

The only foods I have ever refused to date were raw rotten chicken intestines in a Chang Mai jungle market that were not washed, and running tap water in a Delhi street stall that was being used to moisten some chat that they were selling for snack food. In both cases I knew that consuming either one meant a guaranteed trip to the hospital or a night spent puking my guts out.

How were the rooster testicles? What other (not sure how to put this delicately) gonads have you eaten? Care to describe them or have those memories been sufficiently suppressed?

I have eaten the following testicular treats, often times accompanied by the penis as well: snake, yak, cow, goat, rooster, duck, goose, donkey, water buffalo, frog, deer, elk and probably about a dozen others. The balls are great, especially on smaller animals and when eaten extremely fresh. Rooster balls are one of my faves, they are not too gamey, very creamy and when steamed, then quickly pan crisped and served with hot chiles and lime, they are addictive in the extreme. Wolfgang Puck made me Hunan style rooster balls a few weeks ago in L.A. Apparently they were on the opening menu 25 years ago at Chinois but didn’t go over real well. Maybe now they will make a comeback.

I think the more that we eat alternative foods and continue to eat “snout to tail”, the better off we are as a people. The pressure that alternative food-eating takes off of the mainstream food delivery system is an unheralded health and wellness benefit that we would be well-advised to take better advantage of. Tomatoes, spinach and factory farm pork from commodity producers that are commonly available in American supermarkets can make you very sick. Rooster balls are quite delightful!