Guinea pigs have been popular pets ever since European traders introduced them to the West in the 16th century, due to their docile responsiveness and ease of care, meaning many of us have sentimental feelings for these cuddly creatures. For those of us who’ve grown up considering these cuddly creatures as pets, it can come as a surprise to know that guinea pigs originated in the Andes, where they were domesticated as early as 5000BC for their meat and are known as cuy. Originally reserved for ceremonial meals, it’s become a very common dish year-round, especially for birthdays, holidays and other special occasions. Many urban and country households of the Andean highlands raise cuy, feeding them table scraps. They’re considered a good investment because they require little room and reproduce quickly.
In fact, cuy pervades the popular culture. The Peruvian town of Huacho is known for its guinea pig festival, which involves costume contests, races, and of course, tastings. Those of you who do a Cusco city tour will also be surprised to see in the city’s Cathedral a famous painting of the Last Supper which features guinea pig as the main dish.
The meat is rich in protein and low in fat and cholesterol, and the taste is slightly reminiscent of rabbit and the dark meat of chicken. A lot of tourists who try the dish, daintily picking with their knife and fork for the purely meat parts, find that it’s more little bones than meat, but locals get their fill by taking the animal apart and sucking the meat off the bones.
How do you take your Guinea Pig?
You’ll be surprised to know that if you’re interested in trying guinea pig during your travels through Peru, you’ll have a variety of options. Cuy Chactado is guinea pig flattened and fried whole, originating from the Arequipa region. Cuy asado, which is broiled, and cuy al horno, which is roasted, are traditional preparations that you can try if you’re in the Cusco region, especially in Tipón, a small town just outside of Cusco city proper. Many local families in Cusco will visit Tipón on the weekends for a special meal. You can expect it to be slightly expensive relative to other local dishes …
One of the most traditional methods of eating cuy is roasted with potatoes in an oven of earth or rocks. A fire is stoked within a pit lined with rocks. Once the ground and rocks are quite hot, the fire is smothered and the food placed among the earth and rocks. The food is buried and left for about twenty minutes to cook in the residual heat of the fire. This preparation, known as huatia, is common throughout the countryside, but you’re very unlikely to find it on a restaurant menu.
An option for the squeamish among you is to try the more modern fusion dishes of the Novo Andino school- cuy in casseroles, in fricassee, as a filling for ravioli…much more palatable, although you won’t have those impressive photos of a whole guinea pig on a plate as a souvenir!
If you’re interested in sampling traditional dishes, make sure to ask the receptionists in our Cusco hostels, our Arequipa hostel, or our Lima hostel for dining recommendations for roast, fried, or fusion guinea pig!