8 Appetizing Facts About Bizarre Foods With Andrew Zimmern

Travel Channel
Travel Channel

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.

Celebrate the Holidays With the 2020 Harry Potter Funko Pop Advent Calendar

Funko
Funko

Though the main book series and movie franchise are long over, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter remains in the spotlight as one of the most popular properties in pop-culture. The folks at Funko definitely know this, and every year the company releases a new Advent calendar based on the popular series so fans can count down to the holidays with their favorite characters.

Right now, you can pre-order the 2020 edition of Funko's popular Harry Potter Advent calendar, and if you do it through Amazon, you'll even get it on sale for 33 percent off, bringing the price down from $60 to just $40.

Funko Pop!/Amazon

Over the course of the holiday season, the Advent calendar allows you to count down the days until Christmas, starting on December 1, by opening one of the tiny, numbered doors on the appropriate day. Each door is filled with a surprise Pocket Pop! figurine—but outside of the trio of Harry, Hermione, and Ron, the company isn't revealing who you'll be getting just yet.

Calendars will start shipping on October 15, but if you want a head start, go to Amazon to pre-order yours at a discount.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

13 Facts About Miller's Crossing On Its 30th Anniversary

Gabriel Byrne and John Turturro in Joel and Ethan Coen's Miller's Crossing (1990).
Gabriel Byrne and John Turturro in Joel and Ethan Coen's Miller's Crossing (1990).
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

In 1990 Joel and Ethan Coen were not yet the Oscar-winning, cinephile-worshipped filmmaking legends they are today. They had only written and directed two films: 1984’s inventive neo-noir Blood Simple and 1987’s screwball kidnapping comedy Raising Arizona. Though the brothers had drawn critical acclaim for both, they hadn’t yet proven themselves as the true cinematic chameleons we know them as now.

With Miller’s Crossing, an intricate gangster drama that contrasts fedoras and overcoats with the serenity of the forest, the Coens proved they were capable of even more than their brilliant first two efforts suggested. Though it was critically acclaimed, Miller’s Crossing was lost to most audiences in the mire of that year’s other gangster pictures (most notably Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, which was released just two weeks ahead of Miller’s Crossing) and as such is one of the lesser-known entries in the Coens’s filmography. In honor of its 30th anniversary, we dug up some fascinating facts in the hope of changing that.

1. Miller's Crossing was inspired by a single contrasting image.

One of the most memorable shots in Miller’s Crossing features a hat belonging to Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne's character) floating through the forest on a breeze. It’s more than a pretty shot; it’s an indicator of the deliberate contrast that inspired the film. The Coen brothers noted that the film was conceived based on the idea of “the incongruity of urban gangsters in a forest setting.”

2. The Coen brothers turned down Batman to make Miller's Crossing.

After Raising Arizona’s success established the Coens as more than one-hit indie film wonders, the brothers had some options with regard to what project they could tackle next. Reportedly, their success meant that they were among the filmmakers being considered to make Batman for Warner Bros. Of course, the Coens ultimately decided to go the less commercial route, and Tim Burton ended up telling the story of The Dark Knight on the big screen.

3. Miller's Crossing was the final film the Coens made with Barry Sonnenfeld.

Barry Sonnenfeld became a very sought-after cinematographer throughout the 1980s, in part because of his collaborations with the Coens. Their directorial debut, Blood Simple, was his first feature film as a director of photography, and he went on to shoot both Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing for them. The year after Miller’s Crossing was released, Sonnenfeld made his directorial debut with The Addams Family, and went on to direct further hits like Men In Black and Get Shorty.

4. Miller's Crossing was the Coens's first collaboration with Steve Buscemi.

Steve Buscemi in Miller's Crossing (1990).20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Throughout their careers, the Coens have developed a very prestigious company of actors who frequently appear in their films, and Steve Buscemi is among the most prolific. He has appeared in six Coen films, most famously Fargo (1996) and The Big Lebowski (1998). The collaboration started here, when Buscemi was cast as Mink, apparently because he was able to speak faster than anyone else, and fast-talking was crucial to the role.

5. Miller's Crossing was also the Coens's first movie with John Turturro.

When John Turturro was cast as Bernie Bernbaum, the bookie who ignites the mob war at the center of Miller's Crossing, it marked the beginning of a fruitful four-film collaboration with the Coens. They wrote the title role of their next film, 1991’s Barton Fink, specifically for Turturro (who won the Cannes Film Festival’s Best Actor Award for his performance). Of the brothers’s working relationship with Turturro, Ethan Coen once said: “It’s beyond shorthand. We don’t even talk to him!”

6. Miller's Crossing is one of the few Coen brothers movies (so far) not edited by Roderick Jaynes.

To date, the Coen brothers have written and directed 18 feature films, and 15 of them have been either edited or co-edited by Roderick Jaynes. That level of deep collaboration would make Jaynes the Coens’s most frequent collaborator ever … if he were a real person. Jaynes is actually a pseudonym used when the Coens edit their own movies.

7. A sudden death led to Albert Finney being cast as Leo O'Bannon in Miller's Crossing.

As Irish mob boss Leo O’Bannon, Albert Finney is at the center of some of the film’s best scenes—and he’s fantastic in them. Sadly, though, he’s only in the film because another actor died tragically before filming began. The Coens originally cast American actor Trey Wilson, whom they had worked with on Raising Arizona, as Leo. But when Wilson died suddenly from a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 40, the part went to Finney instead.

8. Peter Stormare was supposed to play a mob enforcer in Miller's Crossing.

The Coens’ original plan for Miller’s Crossing involved Peter Stormare playing a character called “The Swede,” who would be the trusted enforcer of Italian mob boss Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito). A commitment to a theatrical production in Sweden meant that Stormare had to turn down the role, though, so the part was rewritten as “The Dane” and played by J.E. Freeman. Stormare ultimately got to work with the Coens six years later on Fargo, and again two years after that on The Big Lebowski.

9. Gabriel Byrne had to convince the Coens to let him keep his Irish accent in Miller's Crossing.

Gabriel Byrne in Miller's Crossing (1990).20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Though he was an Irish native playing a lieutenant to an Irish mobster, the Coens did not originally want Gabriel Byrne to use his own accent in the film. Byrne argued that his dialogue was structured in such a way that it was a good fit for his accent, and after he tried it, the Coens agreed. Ultimately, both Byrne and Finney used Irish accents in the film.

10. Marcia Gay Harden faced some stiff competition for her role in Miller's Crossing.

As Verna Bernbaum, whose relationships with both Leo and Tom ignite some of the film’s key tensions, Marcia Gay Harden delivered one of the best performances of her career, but it wasn’t an easy role to get. She reportedly competed for the role against the likes of Julia Roberts, Demi Moore, and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

11. Jon Polito had to convince the Coens to cast him in a different role in Miller's Crossing.

Jon Polito in Miller's Crossing (1990).20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

When Polito read the Miller’s Crossing script, he loved it and immediately wanted to audition for the role of Johnny Caspar. The Coens had different ideas, and were considering the 39-year-old actor for the role of Caspar’s enforcer, Eddie Dane, instead. The role of Caspar was originally supposed to go to an actor in his mid-50s, but Polito was adamant.

“Anyway, I said I won’t read for anything but Johnny Caspar,” Polito, who passed away in 206, told The A.V. Club. “’And tell them that they’re gonna have to come back to me cause I’m gonna play Johnny.’”

The Coens ultimately gave in, and Polito was cast. They must have liked what they saw, too, because they ended up casting him in four more films after that.

12. A snag in the Miller's Crossing script ultimately led to Barton Fink.

Miller’s Crossing is a complicated beast, full of characters double-crossing each other and scheming for mob supremacy. In fact, it’s so complicated that at one point during the writing process the Coens had to take a break. It turned out to be a productive one: While Miller’s Crossing was on pause, the brothers wrote the screenplay for Barton Fink, the story of a writer who can’t finish a script.

13. Miller's Crossing features several cameos from regular Coen collaborators.

The Coens frequently include cameos from actors and friends in their films, and Miller’s Crossing is particularly full of them. Frances McDormand, who is married to Joel Coen and has appeared in several of their films to date (including Fargo, for which she won an Oscar), plays the mayor’s secretary in one scene. In another, Sam Raimi—a Coen friend and collaborator (the Coens wrote 1985’s Crimewave with Raimi, which Raimi directed, and Raimi later co-wrote The Hudsucker Proxy with the brothers—appears as a crooked cop in a shootout scene. Albert Finney already had a prominent role as Leo, but he enjoyed making the movie so much that he stuck around after his scenes were completed and showed up in drag in a ladies’ room scene. (He’s the “woman” in black on the right side of the screen.)

This story has been updated for 2020.