Andrew Zimmern, host of the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods, talks deep-sea worms, tethering yourself to local culture, zero-kilometre cooking and what happens when you take away someone’s food. By Dana Filek-Gibson. Photo by Vinh Dao.
Your show, Bizarre Foods, is popular all over the world, across many different cultures and in many different countries. Why do you think that is the case?
A lot of people mistakenly think that my show is about a big, fat white American guy that runs around the world shoving bugs in his mouth and, while that’s happened once or twice before, that’s actually the least important part of what we do. In a world where everybody talks about the things that divide us – different skin colour, different language, different sexuality, different spirituality, different politics, different religion – I wanted to have conversations about the thing that we all loved, which was food. Food is the great commonality, more so I think than math or music. If you take away somebody’s quadratic equation or you take away their boombox, they’ll punch you in the mouth. But if you take away their rice or their bread there’s, you know, blood in the fucking streets. I thought that if I wanted to tell stories about a culture through food, that it would be best to do it using stories that people hadn’t heard before. I think food with a story is better than food without one, but food with a story that people haven’t heard about is best of all.
How do you define ‘bizarre’ in terms of your show? One person’s weird is another person’s staple.
The dictionary defines it as ‘unique and interesting’, so that’s how I use it. The idea to call the show Bizarre Foods was not mine. I still don’t like it; I think it gives people the wrong impression. But I think, had I had my way, I would have called it something very witty and urbane and it would have been on public television and we would have made 10 episodes and I would’ve had the love and applause of my peers and that’s it. Instead, we went with somebody else’s idea and it created something that was much more marketable and yes, a little bit commercial, but I don’t think that’s bad because we’ve been able to reach millions, tens of millions, hundred of millions of people with this.
I’m sure you get asked about the strangest foods you’ve eaten all the time, but what’s the food that’s surprised you the most? Something that looks really strange or unusual or unappetising that’s actually turned out to be great.
The first thing that usually comes to mind are what I call the Dr Seuss foods. The ones that are so fantastical, so crazy, we had no idea before we left the United States that we’d even see that food in a given culture, something that somebody walks out of a jungle with and surprises us.
So I’m in Samoa and we’re on a tuna boat and we’re a half-day’s drive out to the middle of the ocean, I mean the deepest part of the Pacific. And in that deep part of the Pacific, only a couple times a decade does the water get flat and the sun bakes down and the water warms up just enough that the coral deep down below releases these tiny little worms called palolo. They float to the surface of the ocean and they scoop them off and they’re eaten plain or on rice or on bread. They’re bright blue. It looks like algae but it tastes like sea urchin and foie gras and liver and seaweed and fermented fish all mixed together, and it was so fucking delicious. I will never see that food again, I will never eat that food again; I may not even bump into another person who’s ever eaten that food again. But I think about that at least once a week.
Your first trip to Vietnam was eight years ago. How was that experience then – food and otherwise – and what made you decide to return?
You know, there are many countries that I love, Vietnam being a very special place for me. I love the spirit of the people, I love the grittiness and the determination of them, I love the cultural pride and almost nationalistic fervour with which the Vietnamese approach things. It’s a very, very unique Petri dish to look at and explore.
It’s also a beautiful place and I love the sights and the sounds and the smells of it. I love the fact that you don’t need to dig deep to tether yourself to the culture. If you go to Spain or Indonesia, you have to work a little harder to sort of plug in, you may have to go to the street behind the street behind the street to experience the true nature of Spanish culture or Indonesian culture. But when you come to a country like Vietnam, unless you’re dropped off in the middle of the high-end hotel zone, you just have to turn the corner and open your eyes and you are presented the true face of what it means to live in Vietnam today. And I think that that’s what makes it fascinating. It makes it easy to make shows here. You know, we just turn down the right street and start rolling the cameras.
Stepping away from the stranger local delicacies, are there any Vietnamese dishes that you are particularly fond of?
What don’t I enjoy? We had a meal yesterday, we ate a whole porcupine, five or six different treatments for it, and they had some of the belly and the shoulder mixed with the offal, just steamed, and served with shiso leaf and a wonderful little peanut sauce for dipping and some rice paste sheets. It was meat and herbs and a dipping sauce but it was handled so beautifully and so deftly and the flavours were so unusual and it was done without pretension. When you’re in a place where everything is truly zero-kilometre, as an outsider the pleasure to take there of not having to worry about what to eat because whatever is local, fresh and best is going to be on the table; I don’t think I’ve ordered a single meal. I just turn to them and say, “Whatever you serve here, I would like to have.” And if you’re in the right place, if you’ve chosen well, you get a pastiche of that country at that time and place that I think is really wonderful.
Since you started this show, what do you think it has taught you about different cultures’ relationships to food?
Oh, it’s taught me everything. I mean if you really pay attention to what the world is telling you, it’s telling you to be more patient and tolerant and understanding of other people. There’s nothing to be gained by separating ourselves from other people. When I was on my own before doing the show, traveling a couple weeks a year, I had the feeling that that was the case and that I needed to find a way to develop more of that in my life. Now, 10 years later, I think the obvious extraordinary lesson of my life has been practicing patience, tolerance and understanding with other people and avoiding contempt prior to investigation. If you’re the type of person who judges a book by its cover, not only are you short-changing yourself when you approach the world, you’re short-changing yourself at home within an arm’s reach of you. I think that travel is one of the great transformative experiences that a human being can have. It’s the way we learn, it’s the way we expose ourselves to other ideas. I’m a much better version of myself when I travel than I am when I’m at home.