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Eating Weird Food in South-East Asia with Sonny Side

Welcome to the Travel Vietnam Podcast! Today, we’re here with Sonny SideTraveler. Youtuber. Sometimes rapper. And we are here to talk about weird foods.

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Andrew: So what’s your thing, Sonny?

Well, my thing is trying to make videos that are entertaining and have to do with travel and food and usually, the most frequent way that comes about is by eating and talking about the unique kind of food of each country.

What do you find you get out of traveling through the prism of weird food?

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Before I started my Youtube channel, I was looking at a lot of other Youtube travel channels and there aren’t that many to begin with and I was really disappointed with what’s out there.

First of all, there aren’t a lot of people going country-to-country making consistent content for different places. There’re tons of people who say, “I’m the Korea person, I’m the Philippines person” and then the people who aren’t doing that are doing these really boring, vanilla type of squeaky-clean content that ends up looking like a cheap version of the Travel Channel, which I don’t understand. I mean you can do anything you want to… why are you telling us a brief history, showing okay angles of where you’re at, and not really giving us anything beyond that? I think it comes back to how to monetize their channel.

“But pure artists like me don’t think about how we can make money, we just try to think about how we can make something good and hopefully something good can come out of it in the end.”

I wanted to make a channel around weird food. First, I wanted to make videos that were entertaining. The food doesn’t necessarily have to be weird, but I wanted it to be from a comedic angle and the subject matter that provoked the most interesting ideas and the most interesting reactions happened to be the weird food.

How long have you been doing the channel now?

It’s only been about six months.

You’ve been in Korea for quite some time. How much did you travel around the region before you started the channel?

I’m from Minnesota originally and when I was about 24, I moved to Korea. I was a teacher in Korea, then became a video director, and now I’ve been doing full-time directing and videography for the last four to five years. I’ve spent eight years in Korea and I’ve traveled to a decent amount of countries around the area. I’ve been to Russia, The Philippines, and Japan a thousand times for “travel” and just a bunch of countries around Southeast Asia.

How has traveling primarily for the Youtube channel and eating a wider variety of foods changed the travel experience in general?

This might be a weird answer and not one many could be related to, but I’ve done many “styles” of travel: I’ve done a “weedcation” in Phnom Penh, smoking for a week and remembering nothing. I’ve done the “chill on the beach” thing, which can be great for like two or three days and then you just get bored. Oddly enough, the travel I like is having some kind of project at hand. For some people, that can be working on their blog or doing photography and for me, it’s just making videos. To me, building the best kind of memories goes back to putting in some work and that’s how I look at it.

“To get a good experience requires some work.”

Do you find that it takes you to very different places?

That’s another reason for having this purpose-driven trip. This is something I’ve never published but five or six years ago, I went to the Philippines. I just had a little handcam going on little missions. I thought cockfighting was super interesting and found somebody to ask if I could go to a farm and meet someone who raised them. So I got to see how they were raised, ask questions, and shoot some of that. But it was something I would never have seen unless I had a reason to dig deeper through the camera.

When I go to a new country or travel in general, I’m certainly not someone who wants to read placards in a museum or visit temples, but I want to have as many unique, interesting kinds of experiences as possible that you couldn’t purchase off a tour. And that’s the most fascinating, riveting thing about travel is when you have those cool, really unique experiences.

One quick example is we did an episode on rat here in Ho Chi Minh City. But we can’t have the rats here; we needed the healthy field rats outside of the city. So we went two hours into the Mekong Delta with a local person who took us to the market where they haven’t seen a foreigner in 16 months. They found the actual rats, then cut them open and cleaned them up for us.

Then we went to the guide’s parents’ house waaaay out in the Delta. We had to cross a little footbridge to get there. His mom had to actually start a fire to cook these big rats in the wok so I’m sitting there with him and his family, eating rat with the sun setting and it’s absolutely beautiful out on this expansive rice paddy. For me, that was a really incredible moment and that would be something I would never have had had I not pursued it.

Another thing I heard in Vietnam was something called electrofishing, which sounds a lot crazier than it actually is. Basically, you put a 25-lb battery onto your back and hold two rods. When you push a button, it connects a circuit, which then creates a blast of electricity into the water. The small fish float up. So, I went with a different guide to see his uncle. They walked us down to a river where they do this. I thought electrofishing would be like cheating but it’s really hard.

Do you find that this is the case in other countries as well, to get way, way off the beaten track?

So far, I’ve only shot in four countries: Vietnam, Taiwan, The Philippines, and Korea. I’m sure if I spend enough time in each country, I know there are some far out things I could find. I know there’s some kind of mouse wine, or snake wine, that I would love to find out how they make it and try it out.

What kind of weird stuff have you eaten in Korea?

They have something beondaegi, silkworm pupa. I’ve liked almost everything I’ve tried lately. That is the one thing I have not liked. It has kind of a mattressy, smoky flavor to it that has a disconcerting crunch and gush. I’ve also had chicken feet. Ever country in Asia has their own version of it but the ones in Korea are deboned so it’s kinda like a big chicken glove and it’s super spicy.

Also, I had some weird seafood at the Noreayangjin Seafood Market (the same one Conan O’Brien went to.) They had gaebul, which is penis fish. It looks like its namesake. They also have sea pineapple and sannakji, which is basically a small octopus. They can either cut it up and serve it to you with sesame oil, which is kinda writhing and wiggling still, or some people eat it whole. I’ve tried it a few times and if you like sushi, it actually tastes good. But the challenge of trying to eat the whole creature wrapped around some chopsticks and then not die as it’s gripping on your throat is something different.

When I think of weird food shows, I obviously think of Andrew Zimmern from Bizzare Foods. How is your stuff different from his?

Before I came here, again just being from Minnesota where there’s no coast and no diversity, I would watch shows like ‘No Reservations’ and ‘Bizarre Foods’ quite often and I was like, “god, these places are so different.” I was so fascinated by it. But what I’ve found different from what Andrew Zimmern does and what I do is oftentimes, [his audiences] just think, “oh the whole country does that” when in fact, most of these things I try, a small part of the population does that.

Or most notably here in Vietnam, I was like, “Southeast Asia is gonna be the king of weird food. I’m gonna find bugs, I’m gonna eat crickets.” So when I asked around, I couldn’t find any place in the city. I know there are places that exist but we actually had to do some internet research. Even the local people who are going there were going there for a laugh because they wanted to try something weird themselves.

“I want to show the food in the context of that culture and not just focus on the food but ask local people if they like it, when they eat it, why they like it… That kind of things as often as I can.”

How often do you eat something and think, oh I get it a bit more?

In Taiwan, they have the century egg. The century egg is a cured egg that they put in lye, lime, and all these other acidic things that ends up curing the egg over a couple of months, turning it amber colored. And then the yolk becomes green and a little bit oozy. The proper way to eat it is to mix it up with some congee or tofu. There are a couple shows out there, mostly based in the States, focused on eating something weird for the shock appeal but the point is that nobody just eats that alone.

So all these different channels are showing people just eating the egg alone and puking it up, but that’s not how people eat it. It’s like someone in Asia eating a bouillon cube for soup and being like, “ugh Westerners, how do they do this? So gross.” And I was happy to put this video out because a lot of people in Taiwan were like, “thank you for properly representing food.”

What’s the most interesting encounter you’ve filmed?

The most interesting one, which I can’t wait to put out because there’s been no content about it, is sausage gambling in Taiwan. A writer for Vice whom I filmed this episode with wrote this article. Sausage gambling is a vestige from World War due in part by American soldiers. You can buy a sausage for NT$40 (about $1 USD) or you can put down NT$100 and you roll the dice. If you win, you get five. If you lose, you get nothing.

How has Vietnamese food compared to these other countries?

I think Southeast Asia has a lot of really weird food from a Western perspective. What I’ve tried here in Vietnam is a lot different than what I would get in other countries. First of all, Korea doesn’t have that weird of food in my opinion. Some of the stuff I’ve been able to find here are the crickets, like this giant cricket with a peanut shoved up its butt. Scorpion, which was so hard and crunchy that I thought it would break my fillings. Coconut worms, which were surprisingly tolerable. They look like giant maggots. And cobra. This one is gonna be a controversial video. I already have one strike on my video channel because of my Philippine cockfighting video and I think my next one will be this cobra one.

What you do is select the cobra, cut open its snake chest. They cut out the beating heart and they put it in a shot glass with some vodka and you just take the whole thing down. It’s insane. I don’t particularly think that anything is off limits so long as its raised and butchered in a humane way. In addition, I tried duck blood soup and durian.

Let’s dig into the duck egg fetus!

In the Philippines, they call it balut. The big thing about balut, duck egg fetus, is that it depends on how old it is i.e. the number of days. It’s very savory and it tastes like duck soup served with vinegar. But in Vietnam, they eat it with tamarind sauce.

One of the weirdest things I ate in the Philippines and most Westerners would be like F*** that and even plenty of Filipino people were like I didn’t even know that existed here was one-day old chick. The chick is essentially a day old, feathered, and fried. It’s almost a step up from balut… it’s already been born.

Can we talk more about coconut worm?

It’s almost like it’s pulsing. It’s about 2-cm long. They have a small black, crunchy head. The body is like an accordion essentially that flexes when it crawls. So when you pick it up, it flexes in a weird way and can almost wiggle out of your fingers. First of all, I thought there was gonna be some throat prep. But she just washed it off with water and then threw it a bowl of fish sauce. They told us to hurry it up or else the worms will die… and we wouldn’t want that. The taste didn’t bother me as much as I thought it might. I’m pleasantly surprised that every time, either it’s not that bad or that most of these things are pretty good.

Of everything you’ve done so far, what to you has been the strangest?

Probably the coconut worm was the one I was most nervous for just because it looks the most daunting.

Now what’s the best thing you’ve ever tried?

Isaw in the Philippines is really good. That’s chicken intestine, woven on a skewer, and cooked adobo style. They grill it and then you can put some vinegar or ketchup, which is really underrated. The century egg I do want to try again. I don’t think I was mixing the tofu and the egg properly when I ate it last time.

What’s the strongest reaction you’ve received?

I think it was hard for people to watch me eat three whole octopods…? That’s a weird one. I had three whole body ones, crawling off my plate and I had to pick them up and plop them back into their sauce. That seemed to evoke the weirdest reactions.

And there’s definitely a line too. I thought, “oh more weird is going to better.” But there’s a certain point where people are like, “yeah I can’t watch this.” (laughs) There has to be a balance.

What’s the thing you’ve been most glad about?

A big turning point for me and how I perceived this show took place in Taiwan when I ate stinky tofu. Stinky tofu has this really pungent, almost revolting trash aroma. It’s super intense. And there’s this place in Taipei called “Dao’s Place of Stink” where they make the stinkiest tofu in Taiwan. We went there to location scout the place. They showed us the various types of tofu and I smelled each one. That was another one I was nervous for. I couldn’t really sleep that night thinking about my biggest fear, which is gagging and retching uncontrollably. I would feel so bad… The smell was th at intense.

So I used a Jedi mind trick. We had to wait for 30 minutes when we got there so what I did is breathed the smell in deeply and say, “ah, this is something that I like.” I would tell myself that over and over. When I get the actual food, I’d look at it with reverence and then finally, when I eat it, I really commit to it. So, I didn’t take a nibble… I took a full bite! I tried to enjoy it. What happened is something clicked because even though it’s super intense and sulfury, I kinda got the taste in there that if you grew up with, you would actually like. Going through that experience helped me. It gave me a lot more perspective why people actually eat it.

Is there anything you haven’t been able to have that connection with?

The sea penis in Korea looks like a phallic, eight-inch long penis. They cut one end off of it and squeeze out all the juice and now it looks like just the skin. Then they cut that into the pieces because it shrinks. It was just these weird, super rubbery pieces of meat. It just didn’t make sense to me. It wasn’t good.

What do you want to try?

I want to find the right way to approach dog that isn’t super divisive or polarizing. It bothers me that so many people who like my episodes were like, “dude, don’t do it. Don’t do dog.” Even Andrew Zimmern of Bizarre Foods hasn’t done it because there’s more downside for him than upside: he’s gonna get insane numbers of people complaining. I think there’s a way to do it while being respectful to both parties: to the people who are against it and to those where it’s common practice.

Where to next? Any plans or new countries you’re eyeing?

Well, I’m planning to move to Vietnam in a few weeks from now. It’s going to be a great hub to hit up Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand. I want to go back to the Philippines again because the Filipino people have been so supportive to the videos I’ve made so far. There’s probably another ten I can make there. The goal right now is to keep expanding, do more episodes, get more consistent putting them out on certain days of the week. Basically, make the show more self-sustaining.

Thanks, Sonny! Tune into Sonny’s weird food inclinations by subscribing to Best Ever Food Review Show on Youtube.

Transcribed by Izzy Pulido

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