Andrew Zimmern in Hawaii for Bizarre Foods America

Andrew Zimmern with his (fourth? fifth?) shave ice of the day, at Shimazu Shave Ice, which graced our Best of Honolulu cover.  

If you were driving by Shimazu Shave Ice last Friday, you might have spotted him: Andrew Zimmern, host of Bizarre Foods, digging into a shave ice that matched his flourescent green and orange striped shirt, surrounded by adorable kids with shave ice bigger than their heads. Flanking them was the camera crew, shooting an upcoming episode of Bizarre Foods America. Not planned was the herd of McKinley high school boys on fixed-gear bikes, angling to get a glance of Zimmern, shouting out “I love you, Andrew!” I never would have guessed that this was Zimmern’s audience.

Zimmern spent a busy weekend in Hawaii: visiting Miloii, considered the last Hawaiian fishing village, touring the Jade Crack Seed factory, ogling opah at the fish auction, sampling Alicia’s Market, pounding poi with Daniel Anthony.

Biting Commentary caught up with him on his first day on Oahu to find out what he finds so “bizarre” about Hawaii food. (By the way, if you’re looking answers to questions like the food he hates the most (walnuts) and where he’s had the worst food poisoning (US), check out this very thorough interview.)

BC: I saw from your Twitter that you were in Milolii. I just talked to someone who has a house there that couldn’t believe they let you film there!

AZ: What I couldn’t believe is that they were throwing nets out into the water, pulling up tiny little mackerel that would be $30 a piece at any of the restaurants we’re talking about. And it’s basically bait fish for catching tuna. Or they dry it and it’s [part of their] subsistence economy, but at the same time, it’s a really precious food around the world.

BC: Did you not expect that here?

AZ: I did. Because I knew what I was coming into and having done this for a long time, it takes a lot to surprise me.

BC: So is there anything you’ve had here so far that you’d consider “bizarre”?

AZ: Well, all of them. I mean, this is bizarre. (He holds up his shave ice, possibly his third one today, half strawberry, half grape.)

BC: It’s funny to me because it’s not bizarre.

AZ: Nobody thinks the stuff they eat everyday is strange. But to the rest of people somewhere, they would.

Everyone in the village where we were shooting yesterday was like, ‘there’s nothing strange here.’ But the fact of the matter is, there’s so much strangeness in drying, salting little fish.

Zimmern looks like he wants to be left alone with his shave ice.

BC: So what’s strange about shave ice?

AZ: They have some odd flavors. Also, to have such traditional food here that everyone loves is almost unheard of in other places. There’s always somewhere in each city, like Cleveland, where there’s someone selling shave ice, but he’s in a mall somewhere and it’s a pale version. This (Shimazu) is the famous place for it. Our show is also about showing the different cultural pathways of food, and this is a very culturally important food.

BC: I've read that you consider “bizarre” foods as more “sustainable”? How so?

AZ: I’ve been saying for 20 years that our food system in this country is broken. So when you look outward into the rest of the world and you see people’s cultures, countries that are living in peace and harmony with their world, taking what is given, really eating seasonally, where it’s done because everyone does it, not because it’s a catchy magazine article, you can’t help but be impressed and know that the secret to real living is out there.

BC: How much of that idea guides your show?

AZ: We don’t set out to do that, but it’s something that I make sure is in every show. You can’t help but bump into it. Just to use the example of the Milolii fishing village. Those folks have the skill to chum the water, set up three or four boats and huge nets, drag it all in and draw the noose closed. They could fish once a week and get thousands of pounds. They could do that. But they don’t. They’re not concerned with increasing the amount of fish they’re pulling out because they’re just living for themselves. They’re not selling to a huge fish factory. There’s not someone else saying give me 5,000 more pounds and we’ll give you $10,000 more. That’s not what’s happening. They fried some, salted some, pickle some, turned some into poke and then they took a whole bunch more and gave it to the neighbors.

BC: It’s amazing that you’ve had this opportunity that few people who live here have.

AZ: Everywhere we go, that’s the case. Even in Minneapolis, where I live, friends come and do things that I would only dream of doing. In your own town, you’re less adventurous. I’m a much better version of myself when I’m traveling.

BC: I suppose that’s a good indicator of whether you’re meant to travel.

So, since we’re talking cultural foods, thoughts now that Twinkies and Wonderbread are gone?

AZ: Isn’t that the freakiest thing? Because Wonderbread is the number one selling white bread in America, I thought that even with Ding Dongs and Ho Hos and Twinkies selling fewer, I was like, who would ever think that company would be in trouble? That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard of.

BC: Are you sad that the next generation will grow up without Twinkies and Wonderbread?
No, because they have their own thing.

BC: What is it?
AZ: I don’t know it. Time will tell. We’ll see who stands the test of time.

The above interview has been edited for length and clarity.