I've always loved Andrew Zimmern's show Bizarre Foods. I mean, watching a grown man eat wild geoduck is basically one of the funniest things you can witness on a food show (Google geoduck, and you'll see what I mean). He's tried everything from fermented Greenlandic shark to something called the Giant Sea Squirt.
But there's a lot more to his show than the fun of watching someone eat something that we might think is, well, bizarre.
"My entire purpose is that I'm trying to teach people patience, tolerance and understanding in a world that doesn't have a lot of it," Zimmern told me in a recent interview when I asked him why his show is important.
"Everyone likes food. But we like Ethiopian food more than we like Ethiopians, we like Mexican food more than we like Mexicans... We like the foods that come from people who speak a different language that we don't often hear, or who have a skin color that's different than ours, or who believe in a spiritual system that's different than what we believe in," he elaborated.
This rang so true to me, especially considering our current political climate. It seems like many Americans (and those in other Western nations) are more afraid of the "other" than ever before, whether that means people who have come to America from far away to start new lives or those they see in news footage who are fighting wars that are hard to understand.
But according to Zimmern, understanding those who are different from us can be pretty simple, really — just try their food.
"The vast majority of people in America experience other cultures first through their mouth. I'm just using the most popular medium — and the one through which I view the world — to try to get people to be less prone to contempt prior to investigation. If I can get them to try food that's a little strange from another place and they like the idea of it, then maybe they'll be a little less squirrelly about the people who also come from that place. The world is not about food; the world is about people, but for some reason we seem to have a hang-up about people."
But rather than shoving intense geopolitical narratives down your throat, on his show, Zimmern is able to share his love of food, travel and experiences with new cultures in a way that's totally relatable. After all, when he's not traveling for his show, he's a husband and a father who calls Minnesota home.
His favorite meals to cook for his family probably look a lot like your own.
"I have a wife and a son who don't want Daddy to make his fermented puffin casserole that he recently tried. I make roast chicken and a big plate of roast vegetables more often than I cook anything else. We also will have three or four side dishes at every meal. It helps us keep the animal protein in balance with the rest of what we're eating."
Similarly, Zimmern wants to remind people that just because you're at home or unable to travel doesn't mean you can't seek out unique cultural experiences and try foods from around the world in your own community.
"I happen to remain convinced that you can 'travel' in your own hometown without leaving. You just need to hop on a bus." For example, he told me that he had recently gone to the other side of town to share iftar (the evening meal during Ramadan, when Muslims break their fast) at a community meal.
"There were about 200 people at the iftar on the southside of Minneapolis, in a community that's mostly populated by Mexican and Somali families. It was a $9 all-you-can-eat buffet of traditional East African food cooked by people who are from that culture. It was, like, 3 miles from my house. And when I left there, I was floating. It was such a great experience, and the food was delicious."
If you're interested in cooking food from other cultures at home, Zimmern says there are a few simple ways take the first step.
"Just cook something each day that you haven't cooked before. Choose a cuisine you like to eat. If you like Thai food, go to the grocery store, get some Thai ingredients, and make something. You can also pick up a food magazine in another language — there are tons, by the way — in any given neighborhood," he suggests. If you don't know the words, just Google them. "You'll start to learn the language and find other recipes," he said.
It seems like when you travel so much (Zimmern has been to more than 150 countries), you might start to get bored. But Zimmern told me that in fact the world seems to get both smaller and more infinite the more he travels.
It can start to feel smaller because you meet so many people and realize that, fundamentally, you have a connection with them. "We are way more alike than we ever imagine, which is why I am so deadset on presenting the world as I see it through food in hopes that others will see our commonalities through that as well. The fisherman who lives in a grass hut on the southern end of Madagascar, that fisherman struggles with the same issues as I do. How to be a good husband, how to be a good father, how to keep providing. He does it in a different context, but I have more in common with him than I do my neighbors down the street who don't have a family to take care of."
So, he said, "Yes, the world is smaller, and we are are more alike than we could ever imagine. But also, our lives and ways of doing things are so complex... It's like a never-ending explosion of color shot through a prism on a wall," he explained.
"I believe you are the best version of yourself when you're on the road," Zimmern told me, "and I think food is the best way to view a culture. When you put that all together, I think it makes a very compelling reason to tune in."
You can watch Zimmern's adventures on the new season of Bizarre Foods Tuesdays on Travel Channel. In the meantime, why not check out some of our recipes and find something totally new to cook for dinner?
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