One of the intoxicating things about travel is the sight, smell and taste of food. Meandering through smokey alleyways and lively markets, wandering to wafts of deliciousness and stopping at endless street stalls for a sumptuous snack. For us, cuisine is a big part of discovering a country, its culture and people. And we'll try just about anything once.
So upon arrival in Cusco, Peru, we knew that part of our culinary adventure had to be cuy or guinea pig. Yes, that little hamster-like creature you had as a childhood pet is somewhat of a delicacy in the Andean highlands and has been a traditional part of the Peruvian and Bolivian diets since pre-colonial times.
The wild variety of guinea pig native to the Andes known as cavy was first domesticated for consumption as part of religious ceremonies around 5000 B.C. Head into the Cusco Cathedral and you can see a religious painting of Jesus and his disciplines sharing none other than a platter of guinea pig!
Since its initial role in religious ceremonies, its consumption as a general foodstuff has become far more widespread. In fact, an estimated 65 million guinea pigs are consumed annually in Peru. That's a lot of guinea pig! There's now even an annual festival in the town of Huacho where guinea pigs are dressed up and judged in various categories including “fattest” and “best dressed.” There's even a fashion show! You can guess what becomes of the models at the after-show party!
From a financial and environmental perspective, there are a lot of advantages to consuming guinea pig over many other meats. They take up far less space and resources than larger animals like cattle, breed quickly and can be raised in an urban environment. They are also very high in protein with a low fat content. In addition, guinea pigs provide a means of supplemental income for families who can raise and breed them in their homes and then sell them at market.
When we ordered cuy off the menu at a small and dimly-lit family-run eatery in Cusco, we weren't quite sure what to expect. A while later, our meal was served…whole.
Yes, still with its head, teeth and legs, and a red pepper (or capsicum as we call them in Oz) in its mouth. (Sorry about the poor quality of this photo, but you get the idea).
We just kind of looked at it for a while. They had given us knives and forks but where do you start? How does one eat a guinea pig? Seeing our slight confusion, the owner of the restaurant came over and offered to, well um…serve it in a more palatable fashion. His young son was curious – we were the only ones there at such an early hour. We saw him staring and hesitantly approaching, and when we indicated that it was OK to come over, he gave us some pointers too.
The actual taste of guinea pig is not that bad – often described as something along the lines of rabbit or the dark meat of chicken. It's more that your mind is telling you to reject it because it is something you haven't been brought up to think of as food. However, if you can get over that mental hurdle, you might just enjoy this typical Peruvian dish.
What's your thinking towards food when you travel? Do you take a “When in Rome” approach? Or do you have your limits? What's the “strangest” food you have eaten? Let us know by sharing your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.