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You are what you eat

You’ve Got to be Kidding

I have always chuckled when I hear the phrase ‘You are what you eat’. I have been very fortunate in my career to travel to over 106 countries and consequently, have had many opportunities to sample gastronomic delicacies not readily available in this area. When I was young, I was very selective of anything which passed between my lips, but as the years progressed, I became slightly more daring in what I eat. Having been born in the Netherlands, enjoying a horse meat sandwich or a piece of smoked eel was very tasty. Breakfast comprised of several slices of bread dipped in bacon grease, a headcheese sandwich or fried blood pudding with apple slices; quite  common and delicious, if you originate from the other side of the pond. I remember arriving in Canada, at a young age, where people ate such strange foods as pizza, hamburger meat on buns and my personal  favourite, corn on the cob, something traditionally fed to chickens in my homeland. As the years progressed my culinary senses became ‘Canadianized’ and were rudely awakened on an early adventure to Morocco, where I sampled pigeon. Surprisingly, it was quite tasty and a new sense of adventure was developing within my taste buds. On a trip to Central Africa, I was fortunate to spend time with a group of Samburu people who offered me, what resembled a strawberry milkshake. Everyone seemed to drink it, so I gave it a try. After two sips I realized there were no strawberries in the mixture and I assumed my facial expression revealed my feelings, for my host began to laugh. I learned that it is customary for the Samburu people to half fill a cup with cow’s milk and the other half with blood from the same animal taken from a small incision behind the neck. I stood staring in disbelief and wished they had never shared the information with me. Politely putting the cup down, I backed away from the people and found a quiet corner. I have eaten snake in Thailand and kangaroo in Australia, but was unprepared for chewing on a piece of zebra, a few slices of ostrich and a salty portion of antelope, served at a restaurant appropriately named Carnivore, on the outskirts of Nairobi. Being open-minded and never wanting to insult local cultures, I will always remember my strangest epicurean experience which happened on a trip to Bolivia. It was at the end of the day on the shores of Lake Titicaca when I met two gentlemen dressed in typical Andean attire. We struck up a conversation, mostly comprising hand gestures as their English was not very good, and my Spanish was much worse. It turned out they were brothers who, fifty years ago made history. Their skill was crafting boats from reeds and their craft was brought to the attention of Thor Heyerdahl, the famous Norwegian explorer. Heyerdahl met with the brothers (there were four at the time) and commissioned them to build boats, which he sailed from Africa to South America on his famous Kon-Tiki and Ra and Ra II adventures. They mesmerized me with their stories and they invited me to dine with them. Unfortunately, I had already made reservations at a local restaurant, for the opportunity would have been great until they showed me a cage filled with guinea pigs. I dreaded the thought going through my head and remembered that guinea pig was an expensive delicacy for the Andean people. With a lump in my throat, I said farewell as I continued on to my dinner arrangements. I entered the restaurant and immediately spotted a similar cage, also filled with guinea pigs. Knowing refusal to be extremely rude I began to answer questions, such as “Would you like your meal filleted and beheaded?” my stomach began to quiver. A few moments later the waiter arrived, setting a plate in front of me with what used to be a cute little guinea pig. Not wanting to offend anyone I began to eat, hoping it would taste like chicken. I cannot tell you what it tasted like, but it certainly was nothing like chicken. It is on occasions such as these that make me appreciate simple, non-exciting, Canadian meals like butter chicken and sweet and sour pork. The next time I hear someone say ‘You are what you eat’, I will picture myself covered in fur, running on an exercise wheel inside a small cage. Bon appétit!

Jonathan van Bilsen is a published author, an award-winning photographer, columnist and keynote speaker. Follow his adventures at

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