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Andrew Zimmern tries Guatemalan pig head stew on tonight’s episode of “Bizarre Foods.” Photo credit: Travel Channel
Andrew Zimmern has traveled thousands of miles to try deer penis, cobra blood, and lizard sake on his award-winning culinary adventure series, “Bizarre Foods.” He’s kicking off his ninth season of the Travel Channel program on Monday with a visit to Guatemala, and spoke with Yahoo Food on how the Internet has reshaped food culture, and why walnuts will never be featured on the show.
How did food get you from homeless drug addict in NYC to getting a television show?
I had been a chef from when I was 14. Then I went homeless for a year and sobered up when I was 30 and a half. I’d been working at a very high level and was very accomplished when my drug and alcohol problem cratered me. I got evicted, and then luckily was provided an intervention by my friends and family when I was in a flophouse hotel trying to drink myself to death. I sobered up and did a restaurant in the Twin Cities for 5 or 6 years, then did some independent contract work. Then I started working in food media in Minneapolis, with the goal of learning everything I could with the anticipation of selling a television show.
But why a show about bizarre foods?
I didn’t care about bizarre foods. The show I sold was about preaching patience, tolerance, and understanding about things that separated us; different sexualities, different skin colors. I wanted to talk about things we had in common. I thought I was the best guy to do that, because I had the ability to look at bowl of soup and tell you its cultural definition.
How has food and food media changed since the show’s launch?
Twenty years ago, Food Network started, and immediately the best foods in the world were being paraded in front of them by a series of fantastic chefs talking to them behind cutting boards. Over the last 10 years, not only have the Internet and magazine industry followed suit, but now you can watch what’s going on behind the line [in kitchens] with cameras, or follow chefs on Instagram in Paris, Hong Kong, and Vienna. This is a different age we live in. The food revolution is being televised. I’m very proud of the small role of the work my show has played in the last 10 years in social justice, acceptance, and tolerance and certainly spurring an interest in foods and in cultures from far away places that people don’t have access to.
Andrew Zimmern sits down for a meal with a family in Guatemala. Photo credit: Travel Channel
Do you find more bizarre foods in the states or abroad?
One of my favorite topics is ‘Do I go to Africa’ or ‘Do I go to Chicago?’ It’s cheaper to go to Chicago. Our primary audience is the U.S., but our show airs in 70 countries. So what’s better: going to the African village where [people] expect to see the crazy, wild weird shit, or to their own backyard and to see some crazy shit? I would argue that seeing it in their backyard is a bigger surprise.
Where is the craziest food in the world?
There’s no place that tops Udon Thani, a small village in Thailand. It’s a tribal community. There’s a small city, but it’s out in the countryside. The people still have jungle markets reminiscent from the ones of a thousand years ago. Rats, weebils, cow placenta, insects. This is a part of the world that pound for pound has some of the craziest food on the planet. The places that are the most remote seem to have the most interesting food.
What about in the states?
Queens, New York — it has the greatest diversity of any city, and the greatest number of ethnic communities for a city greater than 5,000 people. It’s the most diverse and interesting place to eat in America. I go to Flushing because I love Chinese food.
I’ve heard you have rules about eating abroad to keep you from getting sick, such as not drinking the water when far from home. Do you still adhere to that?
I drink the local water all the time so I build up the resistance, but I don’t recommend others do it. That falls into the ‘do what I say, not as I do’ category.[Some of my rules include] hot food hot, cold food cold. And always trust grandmothers. They love to cook for people and a grandmother isn’t going to serve you something you shouldn’t have.
Who would you most like to bring along with you to a “Bizarre Foods” episode?
My father, who sadly is too old to travel with me. My second answer is my son, but he’s a bit too young to go to some of these places.
What’s the most bizarre ingredient in your kitchen?
There’s a lot of fermented experimentation going on in my kitchen. I have a lot of homemade fish sauces, and preserved fish eggs.
Is there something you won’t try?
Walnuts. I just don’t like walnuts.
Season 9 of “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern” premieres tonight (9/28) at 9pm ET/PT on Travel Channel
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