As host of the Travel Channel's Bizarre Foods, Andrew Zimmern has had the job for the past four years of facing down the weirdest dishes found across the world from cow hooves and juicy cheese worms to penis soup. TIME talked to Zimmern about the show and his new book, The Bizarre Truth, which chronicles some of his more memorable eating adventures to make the point that the best way to understand the world is to show up hungry.
What is your philosophy as an eater and a traveler?
If you spend the whole time on the gringo highway, sitting at the beach at your all-inclusive resort sipping piña coladas, you never get a real taste of what the world is all about. I make a conscious decision to go to the last stop on the subway and you can do that in your hometown. It's more fun to do it when you're away because you return with a whole subset of experiences that are more thrilling, and I honestly believe it helps change the world for the better.
Speaking of a changing world, in the book you describe some long-lost food practices that are making comebacks.
When we traveled to Nicaragua, a local chef knew we were coming. He had heard about this cheese Nicaraguans used to make, which died with the Sandinista movement 30 years ago. It's a fresh cheese they hung in the jungle, and it would become infested with maggots, and then they would eat it it was an increased protein source. So this chef did the same thing, and we show up and cut into it, and there's maggots crawling all over our forks. And we ate it.
How does this happen on a large scale?
It's food archaeology, but it's a way to preserve and transfer culture. I'm often asked about the "last bottle of Coke in the desert" these disappearing artisanal foods and artisans. Oftentimes, because of people like myself touting them, foods come back. I think that we need to understand more of what people go through in their daily life, whether it's lung-fishing with the people in Uganda, diving for lobsters in Cuba or getting chased by witch doctors in Ecuador.
A lot of your book is about this kind of experiential eating.
Three or four years ago, I would've said we need to get snout-to-tail eating out of high-end restaurants and back out amongst the population at large, where it belongs. I think because of the economic downturn, we have more people turning to those things on their own. What is luckily happening is that in a lot of these smaller countries there are locals who are saying, "We have a really viable product here in culinary tourism, and if we pave over and plow under our indigenous culture, we're going to be missing out."
Are there any American traditions like this?
Tons whether you're at the Liver Mush Festival in Shelby, N.C., or in Appalachia talking to people who cook with sorghum and maple syrup because they never had sugar and flour. This is still out there.
What haven't you eaten? Where haven't you been?
There's still more places I haven't been than places I've been. I've become an Africa junkie in the last year or two. It's a magical place. This fall I'm crossing Afghanistan and Mongolia off my list. I would like to get down to the South Pole.
What do you eat at the South Pole?
I'm guessing whatever you fly in.
What are some things that adventurous foodies should add to their lists?
Foie gras ice cream as represented by some of the chefs in Barcelona. What you have there is some of the world's most outrageous, experimental cooking. I think people need to have the roasted-lamb dishes at the Djemaa el Fna in Morocco. Prowl the streets of Reykjavik at 3 in the morning and eat the sausages and lobster bisque. Get to Palawan in the southern Philippines and try the seafood. It's mind-boggling. Street food in Hanoi, in the city markets, is second to none. The Minnesota State Fair has cheese curds and anything fried and on a stick.
It's clear that you could go keep going.
I could keep going for hours.