The Bizarre World of a TV Food Show
A day on location filming the Bizarre Foods TV program in Taipei, Taiwan with Andrew Zimmern.
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 a 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 Foods: Taiwan.
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 medicinal food.
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 red one.
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 (行天宮). 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 emphasised. 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 show.
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 Bizarre Foods: Taiwan, on the Travel Channel in the United States, or in Asia, on the Travel and Living channel, coming sometime soon.
Outtakes from the show (scroll down the page for the Taiwan episode).
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