On today’s menu: Entrée is a cocktail of deep fried scorpions, salt infused grasshoppers and sautéed caterpillars; Mains includes a choice of grilled iguana on a bed of sliced yak testicles or roasted wild boar on a jus of buffalo mucus, topped off with a brûlée of fermented armadillo lungs for dessert. Bon appétit!
I use to gag having to finish off my peas or brussel sprouts when I was younger. But Andrew Zimmern, host of the eye-opening travel program Bizarre Foods, is on a mission to explore the flipside of culinary delights. Bizarre Foods takes you on a food safari beyond the predictable gourmet path. Zimmern journey’s the world on roads less travelled, often outside popular tourist hot spots, to discover local delicacies in striking contrast to the taste buds of your average holiday-maker. His motto is ‘If it looks good, eat it’. That is, don’t knock it until you try it – but Zimmern takes it to a whole new level!
Nothing is off limits. In Zimmern’s own words, ‘There’s very little that walks, crawls, swims or grows in this world that hasn’t crossed my lips’. Anything edible is fair game, regardless of how strange the dish is, how funky or pungent the odour, where you find it, or whether it’s served raw…or eaten alive! From piranhas, raw sea urchins to guinea pigs, Zimmern has devoured some of the strangest of delicacies that would challenge the most adventurous of appetites. Zimmern proves it’s mind over matter. If you can overcome the psychological barrier, you’ll learn to appreciate indigenous dishes you would otherwise have thumbed your nose at.
Zimmern has visited numerous destinations across the globe, including major cities to remote towns that are off the beaten track, from countries as vast as Vietnam, Mexico, Taiwan to Trinidad & Tobago to name just a few. In his quest to experience delectable titbits of the more ‘exotic’ variety, Zimmern exposes the heart and soul of a culture, revealing unique recipes that define a country’s local cuisine. Zimmern often visits markets to unearth unusual fruits, vegetables, seafood, meat, spices and other ingredients that are fundamental to a region’s food heritage. He spends time with locals in their homes to observe how dishes are prepared. He mingles with highly regarded chefs, food critics or local fishermen and farmers to uncover the distinct flavours of a country. Zimmern also doesn’t shy away from food sold by street vendors to fully appreciate a nation’s ‘gourmet’ scene.
Along Zimmern’s journeys, you learn that indigenous delicacies are usually shaped by what Mother Nature has to offer. Locals make the most of what their surroundings serve up, living off the land that sustains their villages. Food sources include wild animals and vegetation as untamed as the environment in which they’re found. Farming, fishing or hunting are often integral to a nation’s lifestyle and survival. Zimmern points out that in some countries, the culture demands that every part of the animal be used in the cuisines. These are traditions and customs that date back many generations. Ears, tongues, heart, livers, lungs, to penises and testicles…nothing is wasted or spared. One man’s discard, is another man’s signature dish.
My stomach twists in knots at the idea of having to eat jellied mouse nose or a broth of turtle feet. By contrast, Zimmern has no fear. His stomach must be made of cast iron as each morsel is chewed down with a zesty zeal. He’s honest but polite in his opinion of each dish. Zimmern often describes each bite, the flavour, the texture, the aroma in a way to which viewers can relate. To give you an insight, below are a few samples of Zimmern’s taste tests:
Donkeys are a delicacy in China – it’s lean, high in protein and low in fat. According to Zimmern, a serving of stewed donkey meat served cold – ‘it’s fresh, not gamey, great texture, tender – awesome’. Stir fried donkey skin is like ‘chewy meat noodles with a hint of spice’. Sautéed donkey tail is like ‘a pot roast that melts in your mouth – delicious’! By contrast, braised camel paw is ‘an acquired taste, with a funky smell, gamey texture, with a salty gelatinous bite, like chewy jelly’.
Snake is a specialty in Vietnam. A freshly gutted cobra heart is served still beating and tastes ‘milky’. Deep fried snake skin is ‘just like pork crackling’. Snake meat itself is ‘a cross between eel and chicken’. While in Bolivia, llamas are a favourite amongst the locals. It’s a healthy meat to eat and low in cholesterol. Llama brain and tongue with garlic sauce – ‘it’s chewy, not gamey but fresh tasting’. On the other hand, chanfaina, a Bolivian stew of lamb liver, lungs, heart, kidneys with spices like cumin and turmeric – ‘smells like a butcher shop that’s had no electricity for four days. But, it has an intense livery flavour balanced by a seasoning of spices – perfect’!
So, the next time you’re on a gourmet trek, turn to the flip side of the menu and go hard core! Stir fried tarantulas, pickled bulls heart, rotten shark meat, poached buffalo penis, steamed goat testicle dumplings…. Mmmmm, finger licking good! Enough to tickle the taste buds!