Updated March 26th, 2020.
In Peru, it’s estimated that some 65 million guinea pigs are consumed each year. Cultivated by the Incas in the Andes for centuries, the guinea pig was cheaper to raise and required less room to farm than pigs and cattle.
Guinea pigs are also high in protein and low in fat and cholesterol. People have compared its taste to chicken, rabbit or duck. It’s part of the culture of Peru, but could you eat this furry pet? And what does it taste like? Vegetarians look away! (There are many other Peruvian dishes for you!)
Here are two traveller stories with different opinions on whether it was worth eating pets for lunch in Peru:
Traveller Story 1: DO IT – It’s Delicious!
By Ian Brown
It was Christmas Eve at my Aunt Kelly’s place when my nephew, Jesse, introduced me to his new pet. “Come to see my guinea pig, Elvis,” he screeched, as he bounded down the stairs and into the kitchen. We went to his room and as he scooped up the furry rodent, my stomach began to growl.
“Isn’t he cute,” Jesse cooed as he gently stroked the guinea pig’s soft fur. I tried to be affectionate, but all I could think about was how good Elvis would taste smothered with garlic and cumin after four hours of roasting in my Aunts oven.
Now, I’m not some sort of deranged pet murderer and I don’t have a rodent fetish… guinea pig just happens to be absolutely delicious. How do I know this you might ask? In Peru, it is considered a delicacy.
It all went down in October at Cusco’s overcrowded Pisac Market. It was there, that we first met. Her ginger hair glistened in the afternoon sun as the Peruvian men fawned over her like a pack of drunkards to a kebab shack. Her name was Maria. She was a guinea pig and she was to be my dinner.
A river of sweat cascaded down the forehead of the doughy chef as he scampered away with my soon-to-be-dead amigo. I felt a brief sting of remorse but this quickly dissipated as the aromas began wafting into the open-air dining room.
The guinea pig, or “cuy” in Peru, is a luxury reserved only for the most decadent of occasions and since I had spent the past four days oozing blood, sweat and tears on the unforgiving Inca Trail, it only seemed appropriate. Cuy’s esteem is reflected in its price, which at 25 Peruvian Soles, is about three times what you can expect to pay for an average dinner, but how often does one have the opportunity to eat pets?
To give you an idea of cuy’s reverence in the Andes, I took a stroll to the Cusco Cathedral of Santo Domingo where I found an ancient oil painting of the Last Supper. If you look closely, you’ll notice that in this version, Jesus and the apostles are indulging in a little cuy of their own.
I was roused from my afternoon reverie as a large platter of food was placed before me. I found myself once again staring into Maria’s black eyes, only this time she looked a little crispy and quite dead. Despite my insatiable appetite, I had difficulty looking past her pointed fangs and claws.
The guinea pig is served whole, and when cooked appears quite rodent-like, so I decided to forgo any cutlery and approach it like one would a chicken wing. As my teeth cut through the flesh I instantly succumbed to rapturous bliss as the hot juices met my pining tongue. The taste bears shocking similarity to that of duck and I was so overwhelmed with delight that I inhaled the beast in mere minutes.
The locals favour a dark, toasty Cusqueña Negra to wash down the succulent creature, so I followed suit and sipped on the frosty beer as I tried to make sense of what I’d just done.
A wise man once said, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”
Well, I say: one man’s pet is another man’s lunch.
Traveller Story 2: LEAVE IT. It’s Not Worth it!
By Lucille Wong
Despite being a meat lover who often consumed cute ducklings, pigs, chickens and baby lambs without remorse, I found myself slightly ill at the thought of this. Perhaps it was because I had a pet guinea pig as a child. Her name was Gumboots and she had thick, luscious black and brown fur. She shared her humble cage with her brother (my sister’s guinea pig).
The two of them engaged in some serious incestual activity and one day, we found a third guinea pig in the cage: the tiniest ball of black fluff with a small brown patch of fur on the top of her head. Her eyes remained closed for weeks. You could scoop her up with one hand and when she opened one of her tiny eyes, your heart would melt.
Anyway, fast-forward a few (or more) years to Peru, and it was time to suck it up and embrace local culture.
One sunny afternoon, we took a cab from the city centre to an outdoors, lunchtime-only restaurant called Tradicion Arequipena.
This place is well known for serving traditional Arequipean food including the cuy chactado: one whole guinea pig, breaded with flour and fried flat as a whole, with the head, foot, tails and everything else intact. This was the traditional Peruvian way to serve guinea pig.
We ordered that as well as another popular Arequipean dish – rocoto relleno, a whole pepper stuffed with mincemeats, garlic and onions, topped with cheese and baked with creamy potatoes.
Both dishes arrived at the same time.
We both looked at the rodent, mouth opened with its teeth exposed, and then at each other. Given it was my idea to order the pig, I took the first bite while Lindsay dug into the much more appealing stuffed pepper.
The first cut was much more difficult than I had imagined. I picked up my fork, put it down, picked up my knife, paused momentarily and sliced it in the middle. Using my fork, I pulled out some meat off the bone.
Not sure if our pig was especially skinny or if all pigs were like this but I could not get too much meat off the bone. What I could pull off was palatable but not particularly delicious. The meat was dry, stringy and not seasoned well. There was some similarity to chicken, but in truth, cold, week-old chicken would be tastier.
Feeling somewhat more cultured and definitely more adventurous, we were proud to finish even though we stopped at the head and legs which were popular with locals.
Next time though, we will stick to chicken.