Though the foodie culture that has emerged over the last decade has emboldened eaters to venture outside of their culinary comfort zones, quirky food trucks and a few fried grasshoppers at a ballgame have nothing on the dishes highlighted on Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern. The Travel Channel series, which debuted in 2006, takes Zimmern—a chef who was born in New York City but began his career in Minneapolis—across the globe to try the unique delicacies offered by cultures on nearly every continent. He’s eaten crocodile in the Australian outback, devoured puffin in Iceland, and brain curry in India. And somehow, things only get weirder from there.
While you might not be able to stomach everything that's cooked on the show (it takes a special type of person to watch Zimmern eat some braised tuna eyeballs), it's is a unique look at what the rest of the world puts on its plate. Dig deeper into this Travel Channel staple with these facts about Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern.
1. THE SHOW ISN’T ACTUALLY ABOUT BIZARRE FOODS.
Sure, oddities like donkey salami and bull testicle soup (affectionately called Soup Number Five) get you to tune in, but for Zimmern, Bizarre Foods is really a show about tolerance—and not in a back-to-school special sort of way.
“I didn’t care about bizarre foods," Zimmern told Yahoo!. "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.”
Zimmern had been approached before about having a more traditional cooking show, as a chef behind a cutting board walking the viewer through how to make each dish. But he told Disruption Magazine that “I think food can change the way people see the world,” so he set out to show audiences how different—but ultimately similar—we all are through the lens of a freshly cooked meal.
2. THE SHOW ISN’T AS IMPROVISED AS YOU’D THINK.
What makes Bizarre Foods work so well is the natural feel of the show. The cameras follow Zimmern as he casually wanders through Moroccan marketplaces, explores the South Korean nightlife, or samples street food in Singapore. It takes a lot of planning to look so improvised, and the people behind the show have had to adapt over the years and plan more meticulously for the stories Zimmern and crew want to tell.
“We used to stumble upon things more than we do,” Zimmern told The A.V. Club. “As the show has become bigger, and therefore more expensive to make, and there’s more advertising sold against it, and it becomes a bigger part of the network plan, we can’t risk going somewhere and not coming back with a certain number of stories to fill up our hour. So we know when we go to, whether it’s Detroit or Djibouti, we know that we’re going to go there, and here’s six stories we’re doing.”
Even the best-laid plans can change at a moment’s notice, and something more interesting than the original idea can walk in front of them and alter the show's direction. “Sometimes the stories are harder to find,” Zimmern continued, “but we spend a lot of time parsing on the ground. ‘Okay, let’s not do this because what’s in front of us is even more interesting.' I mean, we’re a TV crew. If a unicorn walks in front of us, I’m gonna eat him.”
3. THE SHOW FEATURED ONE OF THE WORLD’S MOST NOTORIOUS FOODS.
From tarantulas to rectum sausage, Zimmern has wolfed down nearly every animal, bug, and strange plant you could imagine, usually with a reassuring grin to tell audiences that the sea cucumber he’s munching on isn’t nearly as repulsive as you’d think. That is, unless it’s fermented.
Zimmern has gone on record as saying the “worst tasting foods are the fermented spoiled ones.” And in one episode, while visiting Iceland, he got to eat one of the most repulsive examples of fermented food: Hakarl, which is basically rotting Greenlandic shark. All it takes is a quick Google search to see that Hakarl is almost universally accepted as the worst food on the planet.
The flesh of the shark is poisonous when fresh, so it’s first buried underground with stones placed on top to squeeze the toxic moisture out. After a few weeks or months of that, it’s dug up, cut up, and left to hang for a few more months to cap off the rotting process. Though the shark literally “oozes toxic ammonia” for months, it’s a delicacy in Iceland that goes back to Viking times (though even Icelandic natives that eat it today describe it as tasting like ammonia and urine).
Hakarl has gained worldwide infamy due to its, well, repulsive preparation. But Zimmern managed to brave the rotting shark, saying it was “ultimately sweet, nutty and faintly fishy … if you like ammoniated wax.”
4. ZIMMERN WAS BESTED BY SOME STINKY TOFU.
Though the Hakarl must have been unpleasant, Zimmern managed to eat it with smile on his face. The same can’t be said for the “stinky tofu” he was served during the episode in Taiwan. The tofu is thrown in a brine with a mix of vegetables for two years at room temperature, and when it was served to Zimmern, he said he couldn’t get it down past the back of his mouth. A video from Great Big Story features the same restaurant he visited—Dai's House of Unique Stink—and the smell emanating from the dish is likened to rotten garbage or feet.
Though Zimmern says he’s eaten stinky tofu with no problem before, Dai’s House of Unique Stink proved to be a challenge that not even he could best. He had less luck with a 1000-year-old egg, which, can you blame him?
5. SEA URCHIN, HORSE MANE, AND DONKEY WERE AMONG HIS FAVORITE DISHES ON THE SHOW.
Bizarre Foods isn’t aimed at audiences with a weak stomach, but the show makes sure to point out that these strange dishes aren’t just edible—in many cases they’re quite delicious. When asked by the Travel Channel about some of his favorite bizarre foods, Zimmern name-checked everything from cow udders he ate during the Buenos Aires episode to the (shudder) donkey skin he indulged in while filming the Beijing episode.
6. ONE OF ZIMMERN’S LEAST FAVORITE FOODS IS THE HUMBLE WALNUT.
Though Zimmern has gone on record to talk about his challenges with certain fermented foods and especially pungent stinky tofu, his least favorite food is the walnut, because, according to The Daily Meal, he claims “they taste soapy.” Sounds like a joke? Well here’s a video of him spitting out some food made with walnuts. For the sake of irony, here’s a video of him not spitting out—and even enjoying—something called maggot cheese.
7. ZIMMERN’S ONLY REAL FOOD-RELATED ILLNESS CAME FROM TAINTED CUMIN.
Zimmern’s choice of unusual cuisine may raise some eyebrows, but the host says out of everything he’s eaten, both for pleasure and on the show, the only time he’s gotten really sick is from his trip to Morocco when he ingested some tainted cumin.
The result was something called burning mouth syndrome, which is a virus that—you guessed it—causes a burning or tingling sensation in a person’s mouth following the infection. It never really goes away, but Zimmern also says it’s only flared up a few times in the decade since he first contracted it. He told The Huffington Post that he carries a “steroidal rinse” for his mouth should it ever reemerge.
8. SOCIAL ISSUES IN THE U.S. INSPIRED THE MOST RECENT SEASON.
Zimmern’s initial concept of a show that unifies the globe through food has never been timelier—though now he’s looking to do so in his own backyard. So for the series's latest season, which wrapped up in September, the production stayed (mostly) in the United States, to show how the country thrives when different cultures, customs, and cuisines meld together in unison.
“The problem that we always try to solve with the show is this notion that the world needs more patience, tolerance, and understanding with each other,” Zimmern told Esquire. “And if I could pick one place on Earth where people need more patience, tolerance, and understanding with each other, it's America in 2017.”
The premise of the season was to highlight that “there's a whole world within our own history and background that shows us to be a nation of immigrants, embracing commonality as Americans about the good things we share and not about the things that have been dividing us historically.”
Along the way, the show provided a look into Americana itself, exploring the cuisine of the Yukon Trail, Erie Canal, and the life of a Texan cowboy.