You may know three-time James Beard Award-winning TV personality, chef and author Andrew Zimmern for his travels around the globe (170 countries and counting!). But when he sat down to chat with Christopher Kimball, we learned that his best stories and lessons come from the people he meets along the way.
On this week’s episode of Milk Street Radio, Zimmern offers up some eye-opening insights from his travels. Barbecuing lizards is a family affair in Nicaragua, for one. In Peru, there's a right way to cook coconut grubs, and in Botswana, the importance of recycling can't be overstated. Get a taste of the interview from the excerpts below and listen to his full conversation with Christopher Kimball here.
On the happiest man on earth
I once asked a Sakalava tribesperson, a fisherman, if he was happy. I felt like he had the hardest life of anyone that I'd ever met. This was a fellow who had no possessions and lived in a house that blew down once a month. He laughed at me and said, “I'm the happiest person I know. I have everything in the world." In my sort of American TV guy mindset, I had interpreted everything about his life through my lens, and that was a changing point for me.
On the universal language of food
Food is good. Food with a story is better. Food with a story you haven't heard of is better than that. And food with a story that you haven't heard of but you can relate to is better than all of it. Everyone loves barbecued meat, right? In Nicaragua, they're hunting lizards in the rain forest and then barbecuing them. They baste them with brown sugar mixed with the juice of wild, sour oranges, and everyone can relate to it because it looks like the family barbecue. The kids come running in and argue about who gets the legs and which are the best parts.
On the right way to cook coconut grubs
Coconut grubs are tiny little grubs make their way into the coconuts and start eating the rotted wood pulp. Every single time I’ve eaten them, they were just ok. A lot of them tasted like the rotted wood pulp that was inside them. Then I was at a Saturday market in a tiny little town in the Peruvian river system. There was a vendor who had these giant, big, wiggly coconut grubs. His kids were using their thumbnails and splitting them open to take the stomachs out. Mom was skewering them and he was grilling six or eight of these grubs on a stick until they were brown and crispy. I asked him through our translator, “What were they doing with them?” And he says, “I'm taking the stomach out because who wants to eat the rotten wood?” It was a huge eye-opener for me. Just like there are right ways and wrong ways to cook a pork chop or roast a chicken, there's a right way and a wrong way to cook a coconut grub.
On why travel makes you a better person
When you travel, you become the best version of yourself. You're more curious. You ask more questions. The power of travel is transformative.
I remember being in Botswana with the Juntwazee tribe, and they were going to catch these birds with us for dinner one night. They have no personal possessions, only communal possessions. They didn't feel like the rope they had was strong enough, so they all decided to make more. The kids went out and got some reeds and the women started splitting them into strands, and then all 28 members of this one family group sat down and weaved using their fingers and toes. They made 20 10-foot lengths of rope so we could make 20 snap snares to catch 20 birds.
The next day we came back, and all 20 snaps snares had a bird hanging from it. To be helpful, I took out my field knife and went to cut the rope to free the birds, and these people started screaming and yelling at me. The translator was like, “Put the knife away!” I just looked at him like, “What did I do?” And the guy looked at me, he says, “Why would you cut the string? We made that string.” I realized they untie the string and keep reusing it until the string falls apart. I had not been a big recycler. I am now the greenest son of a gun on my block because I had that life-changing moment. It pointed out how wasteful my mindset was. I've been lucky enough to have dozens of moments like that.
On keeping an open mind
When you're traveling, travel with arms open, not arms crossed. Don't close your mind to the possibilities of adventure. I think if we can all remember just to be a little bit more Peter Pan and a little less of Ebenezer Scrooge, we would be much better and much happier when we travel. It's ok if the night doesn't happen perfectly. So many of us have invested so much in these vacations, and I get it, it's the family budget, it's the one week of vacation. But you've got to lean into that ambiguity. You've got to take risks and you've got to put yourself out there.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
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