With their big innocent eyes, cat-like whiskers and soft fluffy fur, guinea pigs make for great family pets. But here, in the Andean mountains of Ecuador, guinea pigs aren’t treated as cuddly companions; they’re bred, boiled and deep-fried for dinner.
Guinea pig or Cuy as it is called in South America is a local delicacy that’s unique to the highlands of Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. Cuy is most often eaten for special occasions, an indigenous tradition that dates back hundreds of years to the Incan empire.
I was curious to learn more about this unusual cuisine, so I set out to the region of Otavalo, a two-hour drive from the capital city of Quito, to find out more.
I found myself in Peguche (a tiny village traditionally known for its weaving culture) to visit a typical Andean family.
Two elderly women shared this dimly-lit house, with only the basic of necessities between them. What they lacked in material possessions, they made up for in over forty-odd guinea pigs.
The ladies shared a few fascinating facts about cuy: The origin of the word is onomatopoeia for the sound they make, a high-pitched, bird-like series of chirps. Nearly every rural Indigenous home has at least one or two guinea pigs roaming around. The amount of guinea pigs one owns is a symbol of social status and wealth.
Cuy are not only used for food. They warm the house, keep the rats away and are used for medicinal purposes. I’m told that local herbal doctors use cuy in their healing rituals. In one ceremony, a shaman will rub the sick person in question with a black cuy for about 15 to 30 minutes, or until the guinea pig suffocates. He then diagnoses the patient’s illness by cutting the animal in half and interpreting the malady according to animals’ spread out innards.
It is also believed that cuy carries positive energy when eaten. A lover of all strange foods, I couldn’t help but want to try guinea pig for myself. I found my way to the popular restaurant La Hornilla, one of ten restaurants in the tiny town of Chaltura that specializes in cuy.
Cuy is prepared differently across the highlands, but here in Chaltura, they deep-fry it multiple times at varying temperatures. I watched as a cook tossed a de-furred, whitish/blue cuy carcass into a pan of sizzling hot oil. The lifeless meat slinked into a deceptively hot vat of placid oil. There’s nothing quite like the sight of a dead guinea pig in a deep fryer….disgusting!
Once sufficiently crispy, the cuy was served spread eagle on a plate. Head, teeth and claws still attached, it didn’t look terribly appetizing but, having come this far, I had no choice but to dig in. The meat was moist, tender and, like most things in this world, tasted just like chicken. Having been deep-fried three times, its skin was extra crispy, leaving a heavy oil residue on my fingertips.
While the meat is a bit scarce and you really have to work for it, I have to admit – guinea pig is not that bad! It likely won’t become part of my daily diet but it’s fun just to try it! Sampling unusual local cuisines, be it foie gras, skewered-scorpion or deep fried cuy, can challenge food taboos. It can expand the mind… and, at the very least, the taste buds.
Would you sample guinea pig? Leave me a comment below!