Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Potatoes with your Guinea Pig, Sir? (Peru)

Between enjoying the Inca Trail, Macchu Picchu, Lake Titicaca, the Nazca Lines, Colca Canyon and other travel wonders of Peru, most travellers are faced with the question whether than can stomach the Peruvian national dish of guinea pig or cuy.

After responding “potato” to the query of “rice or potato with your cuy, sir”, the waitress skipped off with a wry grin on her face. A few minutes later, another of what my country sees as a cute but slightly novel pet was roasting over the red embers of an open barbeque, skewered by a broad flat stick.

The meal is served with the entire guinea pig flattened as if a victim of a road accident. Its charred face with its toothy grin seems to spookily stare at you whichever way you angle the plate.

It is a messy struggle to coax the sinewy meat from the innumerable bones. Though the creatures appear to be quite tubby when alive, hands are required to do an effective job of stripping every meagre morsel away from the tight rib cage and spine. It is certainly not a meal for fine dining. The drumstick is hardly the prized possession that it may be if claimed from the Christmas turkey though it is meant to be the prime pickings of a guinea pig. The flavour has the gentle gamey sense of rabbit and is rather tasty.

It is difficult to escape the fact that it is a traditional and proud part of the Peruvian diet. Most farms and rural properties have a small area reserved to raise guinea pigs, a key source of protein for these typically poor and subsistence-based communities. Some guinea pigs luxuriate in quite ornate mud and straw structures. The often multi-layered setups with tunnels and pathways encourage these naturally inquisitive rodents to explore.

This delicacy has been enjoyed for over two thousand years in Peru with a guide at the famed ruins of Macchu Picchu telling us that there is evidence of domesticated guinea pigs from well before the time of Christ. In local versions of the Last Supper, both Cusco (top photo) and Lima’s (photo to the right) cathedrals contain paintings of this famous religious event with the main dish being that of guinea pig. There are references to Incan sacrificial ceremonies including the prized cuy.

To complete your Peru experience, be bold and sample the national dish. After all, it’s not likely to be on the menu in your home country and is a significant cultural element of Peruvian life.

12 comments:

jasperjugan said...

looks scary :S

Final_Transit said...

Mark! Nice post. Probably my only regret from my Peru trip was not eating a guinea pig. I was a recent convert to eating animals and one serving of Llama, Alpaca was an adventure enough. :)

Kris the Educated Vagabond said...

Oh god! There is no way I could eat a guinea pig! I've had them as pets for too long. That is just...kind of horrific to me.

Mark H said...

@jasperjugan: It does look a little spooky.

@final_transit: I did have some alpaca too.

@Kris: I'm sure many havw that reaction.

Heather Dugan ("Footsteps") said...

I had no idea they were edible. I'm all for sampling local cuisine, but I do a lot better when it's not quite so recognizable!

Mark H said...

@heather: I was surprised it was presented quite so recognisably as well.

Cuckoo said...

I eat chicken and fish but this ?? No, no. Not possible.

Mark H said...

@cuckoo: To the Peruvians, it is probably no different to eating chicken or fish...

FH4U said...

Just how closely related to the rat are guinea pigs?

I've eaten crocodile and bear, I am prepared to try anything once but this does seem a lot of effort for little reward.

Mark H said...

@fh4u: No idea about rats and guinea pigs but I won't be queueing up in a hurry for more cuy. Too fiddly for my liking.

Jason said...

Is too bad that you didn´t eat a guinea pig, when I travel to Peru i ate everything. What i most enjoyed was eating ceviche, that was very nice, also in Arequipa i ate alpaca, it was a total adventure. So if you have the oportunity visit Peru, not only the food is amazing also the places you can visit. I recommend you to hire a travel agency, i used Turperu and was very good, the link if you want information is http://www.turperu.com.pe/pages/index.php

Mark H said...

@jason: I also ate ceviche and it was very very tasty indeed (nicer than cuy).

 
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