Watch the Bizarre Foods epidode
I was a 4-year old the last time I appeared
on television. That was in Bendigo, Australia on the
Ansett Flying Club. It was a kids show with an airline
theme, hosted by a make-believe pilot and stewardess,
and every week a different bunch of kids got to be
part of the fun. The show was sponsored by Ansett Airlines.
Today Bendigo aerodrome still has no regular commercial
service, so God knows what the Ansett marketing department
were thinking – no wonder they went out of business.
That TV experience was heady stuff: a bit of sing-along,
some on-cue screaming and lots of clapping, and then
my television career was over.
But two weeks ago I got an email from
a couple of friends in Alaska who I had not seen or
heard of for over than 10 years. They had tracked me
down via this website after spotting me on TV. In Alaska!
I wouldn't have thought they'd have electricity there
let alone television. They had seen me not on a rerun
of the Ansett Flying Club but on a program called Bizarre
The Travel Channel's Bizarre Foods program
was planning an episode on Taiwan when Georgianna Day,
a researcher with the show's production company contacted
me. That was mid-March. I gave her a list of suggestions
– basically my top picks for unusual Taiwan food that
I thought viewers might, shall we say, find 'interesting.'
As the show neared production, Georgianna asked me
to appear as a guest on the program. Shortly before
the film crew arrived in late April it was agreed I
would go to Taipei to film a segment about Chinese
Filming (April 28 2007)
In Taipei I meet the crew outside their hotel. As cameraman Luke
Logan is packing gear into the back of a van, Andrew Zimmern,
host of Bizarre Foods, and producer Janice McDonald are staring
at my chest. "No one told you about logos? You can't have a logo
on your shirt," says Janice. I have another shirt, plain white. "No
white. We'll get you a shirt later."
Backing up the Americans is a group
of locals: Josh is the fixer, the location guy who
organizes things in advance, a second cameraman, a
photographer for publicity stills, a production assistant,
and a driver.
Just before 10 am we arrive at the Black
Gee restaurant. I am pleased the show has taken up
some of my suggestions. Wu gu ji, black bone
chicken, is one of them. This is the silkie bantam,
a Chinese breed. Its beautiful, fluffy white feathers,
disguise a shockingly black body. The Black Gee specializes
in wu gu ji dishes.
The restaurant owner, Mrs. Pan, arrives
soon after and we all go to her local market. The camera
follows her as she buys the ingredients she needs for
the day. At the poultry vendor she chooses birds from
cages. These are filmed live, dead and in various states
of undress and dissection.
Luke takes a lot of footage in the market.
I have to move out of sight anytime the camera pans
in my direction. "You can't be in the shot. You haven't
'met' Andrew yet," explains Janice.
At a nearby clothing shop Janice picks
out two logo-less, collared shirts. I choose the deep
We let Mrs. Pan get on with her work,
and we go to a Chinese pharmacy in Dihua Street. Andrew
and I are filmed arriving, filmed inside talking about
the role of medicine in Chinese food, and filmed looking
at the mind boggling array of medicinal goods. The
obvious presence of items like deer penises, seahorses
and sharks fins should forever put paid to the term Chinese
herbal medicine. Traditional Chinese medicine is
a better description.
Former chef Andrew is an uprooted New
Yorker now based in Minneapolis. Apart from this program,
he has a hand in several other food/media related ventures.
I have seen Bizarre Foods only once, and then only
a snippet, but unlike other media personalities who
are usually enhanced in some way on screen, Andrew,
oddly, is diminished. He looks very short on TV. In
reality he is not.
As we finish up, a small group of curious
onlookers gather at the door. One guy is excitedly
snapping pictures of me. I point him towards Andrew
but he is undeterred. I imagine the dinner conversation
at his home this evening:
Celebrity snapper: "Guess who I photographed
today down in Dihua Street?"
Celebrity snapper: "He was in a bright red shirt being interviewed.
There were cameras everywhere."
Wife: "Who, who?"
Celebrity snapper: "I am not sure."
This is the scenario for my 'meeting'
with Andrew: I am waiting for him, leaning against
the stone guardian lions by the wooden temple doors
of the Xingtian Temple. He is across the courtyard
walking towards us through the temple gates. The cameraman
is next to me. It is a busy place and visitors keep
unknowingly spoiling the shot by blocking the line
of sight. It occurs to me that to those not in-the-know,
Andrew might look mad; a shaven-headed foreigner in
a loud shirt talking and gesturing to himself as he
walks staring into the distance. Andrew fluffs his
lines a few times as well. Each time he has to go back
outside and start again. It might be only April, but
the temperature is already pushing 30º C. We are in
the shade but he is stuck out in the hot sun. I watch
intently to see if he will blow his cool. He doesn't.
After 10 or 12 times he gets it right and makes it
up the temple steps where he says, "Stephen?" And there
we are, pretending we have never laid eyes on each
other, yet suddenly heading off down the road like
sworn blood brothers. Of course we had to film that
part several times too.
At every opportunity the crew film little
promos for the series. These usually involve Andrew
holding up some piece of food and saying, "If it looks
good, eat it," before chomping down on whatever it
is. It is a slogan that makes perfect sense if you
want to encourage people to broaden their culinary
perspective, but as much of the stuff Andrew tucks
into looks like crap, it is a bit incongruous. Case
in point, the next item on our itinerary.
It's after 2 o'clock and we are back
at the Black Gee Restaurant. There are only a couple
of customers left so Mrs. Pan has time for us. The
crew discuss important matters: which table Andrew
and I should sit at; which direction to film from;
the whereabouts of the toilet.
Chinese believe that poultry is the
most nutritious of all meat. Chicken in particular
is hen bu, a very nourishing, warming food,
good for the immune system, and a great tonic for the
whole body. Though good for everybody, chicken soup
is particularly popular with pregnant and nursing women.
Sweet tasting wu gu ji, is considered more nourishing
than other chicken.
The complete restaurant menu is based
on wu gu ji. The chicken is stewed with different
combinations of herbs and other ingredients and, depending
on what medicinal characteristics are to be emphasized.
Mrs. Pan has ample qualifications for running this
restaurant. Her home village in southern China is well
known for wu gu ji dishes. She says her grandfather,
who has eaten wu gu ji every day of his life,
is now well over a hundred years old.
Someone suggests filming the last customers
as they eat so Josh asks for their permission. The
man, in his sixties, not only won't give permission,
he is quite adamant about even appearing in the background.
The couple hurriedly finish their food and leave. It
strikes me that his dressed-for-the-Oscars female dining
companion may not be his wife. Or his daughter, though
she easily looks young enough. The Black Gee with the
reputed 'male strengthening' qualities of some of its
food is exactly the kind of place a man might visit
for some extra insurance before engaging in behaviour
of a naughty nature.
Andrew and I are filmed arriving and
leaving the restaurant, several times. Then with the
equipment set up, we are filmed at a table discussing
and finally eating black bone chicken (it's
not so much a choice between light and dark meat as
between grey and black).
It is getting warm in the restaurant.
We are filming under lights and the food has been reheated
several times to keep it steaming. Problem: Janice
notices that sweat is beginning to seep through Andrew's
bright green shirt. Solution: without an identical
replacement shirt, someone is sent out to buy a singlet
for Andrew to wear under the shirt.
Wu gu ji is distinctly unappealing
to look at, but it is only chicken meat after all.
Now it is time to eat the rooster's balls. I was the
one that suggested this, now I was going to have to
eat my words. The chicken testicles are first soaked
in rice wine, then cooked in a herbal mixture.
For the Chinese, there is a basic correlation
between the parts of animals you eat and your own.
The saying chi gan, bu gan, eat liver to fortify
your own liver represents this idea. So if you are
an alcoholic, eat lots of pig liver. If you have eye
problems, eat fish eyes, if you want to be smarter,
eat brain (at least walnuts, which are also supposed
to work because Chinese think the flesh of the nut
looks like a brain).
When you ask Taiwanese why men eat rooster
testicles, they usually just say they are "good for
man," wink, wink, giggle, giggle. What they
mean of course is sexual virility; they supposedly
help a male keep up his manhood. But they are eaten
not just for this purpose. They are considered to be
a good source of protein and hormones. It is said also
that some women eat them to improve the complexion.
We stare into a pot on our table that
consists of little more than the whole testicles of
both the white-fleshed and the black-fleshed rooster.
I can testify that the dark guy's cojones are as black
as the rest of him. We eat one each of the white balls,
then tackle the black. Andrew describes the texture
as, "… like having milk jello inside a paper membrane,
and the moment you put any tooth pressure at all the
whole thing explodes in your mouth."
And that is it. It is 4.30 pm and filming
is over. Andrew goes back to the hotel. Everyone else
sits down to a lunch of wu gu ji hotpot. And
to the relief of the Americans, if not some of the
Taiwanese, there is no rooster balls in it.
I catch the train back to Taichung and
relative obscurity, while the crew, after a couple
more days in Taiwan, were off to Vietnam for another
I still have the red shirt I wore that
day. It's a kind of memento, and like the show, the
shirt left an indelible impression. The first time
I washed it, red dye leaked into all the other clothes.
We have a lot of pink clothes now. My wife, more expert
than I in these matters, washes it separately now,
but even after 10 or 15 washes the water still runs
red. She calls the shirt a 'bleeder.'
The show has not been aired yet here
in Asia but a couple of days ago I received a disc
copy sent over by the production company. It went straight
in to the DVD player.
My reaction? Mild shock. They have diminished
me too! Not only did they cut all my best lines, but
with their digital trickery they have somehow managed
to make me look older and less charismatic than I actually
am. In one scene it even looks like I have a mild hangover!
Well, all right, I have to admit the
hangover was not completely digital.
Watch the Bizarre Foods epidode