As you may know, I get a kick out of trying exotic foods. The weirder, the better. I’ve eaten balut (duck embryo), durian (stinky fruit), and alligator, just to name a few. So call me cruel, but when I decided to come to Cusco, I was ecstatic about eating a guinea pig, or as the Peruvians call it, “cuy” (COO-ee).
To begin with, you should know Peruvians don’t eat cuy on a regular basis. The pricey delicacy is normally saved for special occasions–birthdays, fiestas, and holidays–but with the influx of curious tourists, many Peruvian restaurants now keep cuy on the menu, if only to satisfy the appetites of adventurous foreigners.
History of Guinea Pigs
Believe it or not, guinea pigs originated in the Andean region (Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru) and were originally raised specifically for eating. It wasn’t until the Spanish came and started sending guinea pigs to Europe that the furry creatures were treated as pets.
Guinea pig meat is special because it’s higher in protein and lower in cholesterol than chicken, pork, or beef. I know a girl here in Cusco who volunteers with a program that raises guinea pigs specifically to feed to cancer patients, as the meat is healthier for them.
The cuy was revered by certain indigenous Peruvian peoples such as the Moche, Incas and the Quechua. In fact, in the Cathedral in the main square of Cusco, you can find a Quechua painter’s rendition of “The Last Supper”–with cuy being served!
Cuy al Horno Versus Cuy Chactado
There are two main ways cuy is served in Peru:
- Cuy al horno (Baked Cuy) I recommend trying this one because this is the way it is traditionally served in the Andean region, stuffed with herbs, baked over a spit, and served whole.
- Cuy Chactado (Fried Cuy)
This way of preparing cuy is indigenous to Ayacucho, a city to the west of Cusco. It’s more difficult to find cuy chactado in Cusco, but I have seen it on the menu at La Cusqueñita.
Where to Try Cuy
I asked my host, Manuel, a native Cusqueñan, and he highly recommended La Cusqueñita, a traditional (albeit, touristy) restaurant on Ave. Tullumayo in central Cusco. Here, cuy al horno costs 45 Peruvian Soles, or about $16 USD.
What It Tastes Like
It tastes like a dark meat chicken or duck. Some people describe its flavor as being close to pork. It didn’t taste too “gamey” to me. Honestly, it doesn’t taste nearly as bad as it looks or sounds. It’s just another meat. There actually isn’t much meat on the bones; the meatiest parts are the hind legs.
How to Eat Cuy
You have to use your hands. I’m serious. Don’t try to be all dainty and sophisticated when in reality you have a roasted childhood pet snarling at you from your plate. Dig in with your fingers like the barbarian that you are! (Alternatively, you can ask the waiter to cut it up for you. My friend who visited me in Cusco two weeks ago did this. Much less messy.)
Coincidentally, three days later as I was touring the nearby town of Ollantaytambo, my tour guide took me to a house where a woman raises guinea pigs for human consumption. And–oh crap–they’re kinda cute.