The vast majority of people I met while travelling in South America seemed to be a little more informed of the culinary practices of the area than I was. I think I must have been the only person in the world who had arrived in Peru completely unaware that I there was a chance that I may be served Guinea Pig for dinner.
I even managed to make it through the first few weeks in the country without making the discovery. It wasn’t until I got the Cusco that I finally faced the inevitable dilemma faced by every Peruvian tourist: to eat or not to eat the Guinea Pig?
Walking along the cobbled road with a friend, a sign on the side of the road caught my eye. Special of the Day: Cuy – order now for dinner. I wasn’t familiar with cuy so I looked it up in my guidebook.
I don’t remember exactly what the book said, but one thing I clearly remember is that after reading the entry, I turned to my travel companion and said, “You’re not going to like this…”
I suppose a little history of the Guinea Pig is in order at this point in the story: Guinea Pig, or cuy in the local Quechuan language, originate from the Andes. They were domesticated by the local tribes thousands of years ago and used as a food source as they are easy to keep and eat kitchen scraps. In fact, they are still hugely popular and if you travel around rural Peru you will certainly come across houses with a small herd of Guinea Pigs running around in the kitchen.
European visitors to the area brought the animals back home with them and they became popular as pets for exactly the same reasons as they were popular in Peru: they are easy to keep and they eat kitchen scraps. Their popularity as children’s pets rose and rose and even Queen Elizabeth I was reported to have kept one.
All of this I learned easily from a few minutes reading my guidebook but the next half an hour was tricky. Do we try the Guinea Pig? My friend and I disagreed – I was up for it. I always like to try the local fare, no matter how bizarre it may be. I’ve eaten snake and alligator, I’ve eaten crickets and crocodile but I’d never eaten a household pet. She was adamant that she wasn’t interested and insisted that she wouldn’t feel comfortable eating ‘a fluffy little Guinea Pig’. Even my argument that it was unlikely to be served complete with fur and a collar that said ‘Patch’ didn’t help.
Her mind could not be changed – all she could think of was her own pet Guinea Pig from her childhood, an animal that had been eaten by a fox in a terribly traumatic incident that left her back garden smeared with Guinea Pig blood. So no, she would most definitely not eat the Guinea Pig.
As a small child myself, I didn’t have any pets and perhaps that’s the difference. I saw the Guinea Pigs simply as a cultural delicacy that was there to be tried. I couldn’t pass it up. Once I had made the discovery, there was no way I was going to come back from Peru not having tried the Guinea Pig!
We returned to the restaurant later that evening, after noting that a large number of the restaurants in the city had cuy on the menu – once you know what it is you see it everywhere! We sat down and I ordered the cuy at which point I learned a valuable lesson: it’s best to order it earlier in the day – that way they’ll roast it to order and it will be ready when you arrive. As I hadn’t ordered a portion, they went to see if they had any available. Luckily they did and I sat eagerly anticipating my dinner. My friend spent the entire wait teasing me and trying to make me feel bad, but I was undeterred.
Nothing, however, could have prepared me for the sight that arrived.
The Guinea Pig was to be served with stuffed peppers and rice. I hadn’t really given it much thought but I had assumed that the meat would be in cubes or chopped up in some way.
Split open straight down the middle so that you can access the meat inside, the Guinea Pig was served standing up on the plate with a little carved tomato perched on its head as a hat.
I have to say, this was the point where I began to wonder if my friend had been right: I paused and she visibly turned white. This sort of uncomfortable dilemma was clearly not an uncommon sight for the restaurant staff, who stood in the corner and giggled as I poked at the poor Guinea Pig carcass and tried to decide how best to eat it while my friend looked on in horror.
Finally deciding that I should just plunge in and go for it, I started to rip it apart. The meat itself was not good: tough and leathery from being spit roasted, I found that it tasted of nothing. The disappointment was huge, I had built up the courage to order and try this local food and I found that I couldn’t eat much of it. Luckily the accompanying stuffed peppers were good so I didn’t go entirely hungry.
Since my visit to Peru, I have met several people who have eaten Guinea Pig and opinion seems to be divided: some say it’s delicious and some had the same experience as me. Perhaps it depends on the restaurant; perhaps it depends on how far in advance you order your food; perhaps it depends on your taste buds.
But one thing remains true: telling people that you have eaten Guinea Pig is a big hit. Some people think it’s great, some think it’s gross, but it always gets a reaction.
Takeaway Tip: Guinea Pig can be found in restaurants throughout Peru and Ecuador but you’ll need to check whether you need to order it in advance. It’s not a cheap meal, either, as the restaurants generally aim it at the tourist market. You’ll find that it will cost you two to four times the amount that you would usually spend on a meal, although by American or European standards, it’s still a reasonably priced meal. I think that if I were to do this again, I would ask a local (perhaps the person at the front desk of the hotel) for a recommendation, as the quality of the meat seems to vary greatly.
Guest Post Provided by: Sally from Bright Orange Pillowcase
Sally is a British primary school teacher who is currently undertaking a Round the World trip based purely on other people’s suggestions and advice. Making her decisions by talking to strangers, through the results of online polls and by receiving e-mail recommendations via her website, she recently drove across the USA and found that travelling by other’s suggestions proved to be both an interesting and entertaining way to travel! She is currently residing in a tiny camper van somewhere in New Zealand and her blog, Bright Orange Pillowcase, charts her path and experiences as she travels across the world.