When L.A. chef Michael Voltaggio was filming the first season of Breaking Borders, his new Travel Channel show about visiting conflict zones, he had a rule about food.
He couldn’t bring himself to eat any dogs or cats, but pretty much everything else was an option.
“We ate tarantula, rats, beetles, and snakes,” Voltaggio says of his trip to Cambodia. “I’m scared of spiders and I ate a tarantula. I ripped the body open and I saw the little eggs and saw these little spider babies.”
That unleashed something primal in Voltaggio, who felt like he was exacting revenge on all the spiders who had ever terrified him. (When Voltaggio–“I’m like that dude who’s covered in tattoos, but I’m afraid of spiders”–sees a spider at home, his girlfriend has to pick it up and take it outside.)
“I went to a childhood place and didn’t even realize we were filming a TV show anymore,” he says. “I’m going to eat you and your babies.”
The spider tasted crunchy and like the spices that topped it. “It tasted like tarantula,” Voltaggio says.
Similarly, Voltaggio marinated a rat for eight hours in ginger, sesame oil, and chili sauce and then cooked it and served it to co-host Mariana van Zeller. It tasted like ginger, sesame oil, and chili sauce.
But Breaking Borders is far from just a show about extreme eating. It’s about human connections in unlikely locations that most travelers avoid, about how food can bring together people who are at odds about their most basic of beliefs.
Sunday’s premiere is about the Middle East.
“What surprised me honestly is how I much I liked it, how much of a tourist destination it should be and not just for people going there for religious reasons,” Voltaggio says of visiting Israel. “The markets, the food, the people, the architecture, the history.”
Voltaggio, as you can see in the clip below, stopped by the oldest tattoo shop in the country to pick out some new ink.
“When you see it on TV, the perception is that there are rockets going off and there’s war everywhere,” Voltaggio continues. “That’s what I expected, but it wasn’t like that all. Not to take away from the severity of the things that are happening in the Middle East, but I felt safe and it felt like I was in an amazing place. It’s like a pot of water with a lid on it, it’s always simmering, the lid could blow off at any point.”
But despite the tensions surrounding him, Voltaggio found himself befriending locals.
“Even when I crossed over to Hebron and into the West Bank, even the graffiti and the street art, it felt very clean and pristine,” he says. “I loved the personality and the character on that side of the wall too. I made friends on both sides of the wall. I didn’t care if they were Israeli or Palestinian. I met a lot of cool people, and I want to go back and hang out with them.”
When it came time for Voltaggio to cook, he made hummus out of fresh green chickpeas.
“Hummus, that’s the conflict within the conflict there, who makes better hummus,” Voltaggio says. “The Palestinians will say the Israelis didn’t have any recipes, so they took our recipes, too.”
While many people eat hummus that’s made out of canned chickpeas, what Voltaggio created “had a brightness, a vegetal quality,” the chef says. “‘Green’ is a word you can use to describe a flavor profile. It was ‘green’-tasting.”
Having to cook kosher in the first episode created challenges like making a dessert without any dairy, but Voltaggio adapted to and embraced the flavors of the destinations he visited. He learned to appreciate the wonders of fermented fish sauce in Cambodia and how coconut is used in Sri Lanka’s savory cooking.
Watch Breaking Borders this season and you’ll also get to see the chef visiting Cuba before and after President Obama announced a historic decision to normalize relations with the island in December.
“Going down there in October and going back there a couple weeks ago, you feel good about it,” Voltaggio says. “It feels cool to have a positive conversation after having an emotional one.”
Breaking Borders premieres Sunday at 9 p.m.