Today, we are excited to launch a new series called Origins. Although dishes like ceviche, arepas, and big fat pieces of Argentine meat have become popular outside of Latin America, there are a variety of other foods that have yet to be discovered. Our expert researcher and travel writer Joanna Marracelli will dig into the foods of South and Latin America, uncovering their history, and a little more about how they’re used. Enjoy. 

[Laurent Lhomond]

[Laurent Lhomond]

By Joanna Marracelli

Guinea pigs. Yes, I’m talking about those cute, cuddly creatures that are often found as domesticated pets in the homes of North American, European or Australian families. It’s what you do when your kid begs and pleads with you to get a cat or a dog yet you really don’t want to take on that extra added responsibility. Despite sincere promises of walking the dog or changing the litter box, you know deep down that your child will never do it.  But you hate to disappoint. So what’s the solution?  Why, strut down to your local pet store and return home with a guinea pig of course. 

Your child will be delighted with these sociable, affectionate critters and since they spend most of their time in a cage and don’t take up much room, it’s a relatively low-maintenance pet with limited responsibility.  The thought of eating Fluffy would never even cross your mind and the idea that in some cultures eating these animals is considered not only normal but celebratory, can make one cringe in horror.  If you are of this mindset and plan to ever visit Peru or other South American parts of the Andes prepare to be dutifully shocked.

[Laurent Lhomond]

[Laurent Lhomond]

How on earth did these cute rodents make their way onto Peruvian dining tables?  It turns out they were consumed long before they became a part of the family. The tradition goes back thousands of years and stems mainly from pragmatism. The guinea pig is native to South America and an important part of the cultural traditions in Peru (it’s also eaten and revered in the Andean parts of Ecuador, Bolivia & Colombia). In the 16th century, European traders introduced them to Western cultures and people have been keeping them as pets ever since. In South America, the history is quite different.

Prior to the arrival of the Incas, guinea pigs were cultivated for use as an important food source, before the arrival of traditional livestock. The idea was born from practicality. Think about it. Guinea pigs reproduce much quicker than cows or pigs, take up far less room, and are easy to feed and care for. They are also nutrient rich. The meat is high in protein and naturally low in cholesterol and fat.  Viewing guinea pig consumption from this perspective, it seems completely logical to eat Fluffy.

Guinea pigs go far beyond this practical use, however. The pigs were often consumed in religious and social ceremonies. Any type of celebration involved eating guinea pig. This remains true even today.  No birthday or wedding is complete without a whole cuy on the table.  Eating guinea pigs is such an integral part of the culture and of celebrations that inside the main cathedral in Cusco, you can find a painting of “The Last Supper” which depicts Christ and his disciples feasting on none other than guinea pig!

These animals weren’t just limited to the table. They were also used in traditional medicine and venerated by ancient Andean people. Folk doctors called curandos would often rub the guinea pig over a patient’s sick body and the critter was said to squeak when it passed over an afflicted area. Black guinea pigs were known to be particularly adept at this. Imagine this scene happening in modern emergency rooms.

Today, most guinea pigs in Peru are raised at home for private consumption while other folks raise them for selling. I visited a woman in the sacred valley just outside of Cusco who showed me her guinea pig ‘farm’ and explained more about them.  Guinea pigs are usually kept indoors because they don’t react well to extreme changes in temperature (although they can adapt over time to different climates).  Sometimes they are freely roaming in home kitchens but more often they are kept in hutches called cuyeros.

Wood chips are burned to keep the pigs warm.  It also enables the temperature to be more constant which helps prevent them from getting sick. Guinea pigs are strict vegans and feed on alfalfa grass and specific types of flowers which are supposed to increase their appetite.  The guinea pigs come in different colors and this affects the flavor of each one. The more colors a pig has is directly proportional to their flavor.  Thus, the multi-colored ones are the most tasty!

[Laurent Lhomond]

[Laurent Lhomond]

The guinea pig usually lives for about four or five years.  They have a litter between one and four but normally only two babies often survive. When the guinea pig has reached 8 months of age, it is ready for consumption.  Some traditional communities in the Andes still perform special ceremonies for the slaughter.

In Peru, over 65 million guinea pigs are eaten each year.  There are numerous festivals, including parades, held every year all around the country celebrating the pig. You can find guinea pigs on most menus in the Andean highlands in Peru. There are two main ways in which it is prepared; cuy chuctado (fried) or el horno (roasted in the oven). Sometimes it’s prepared on an asado (grilled) but it’s less common.  In Colombia and Ecuador they frequently roast them in a rotisserie-style method.  In Ecuador they sometimes use the guinea pig in a soup known as sopa de cuy.

Cuy chuctado refers to the guinea pig being fried under the weight of a stone called a chaquena, which is where this method gets its name from. Let’s face it, almost anything fried is delicious, so I can recommend you try it prepared this way if you are squeamish.  This method is common in Andean cultures in Peru.  You can find it prepared like this in and around Cusco. First the whole guinea pig is dipped in cornmeal mixed with flour and then it’s added to the hot oil. The chaquena is then placed on top to ensure thorough cooking and no movement. Normally it’s prepared and served in its entirety (this means with the head still attached and sometimes even the teeth)! If this will cause you further horror and shock, you can ask for it sans head.

The flavor does not taste like chicken.  Guinea pig has a flavor and texture all its own.  If I was pressed to describe it, I could put it as a cross between pork and rabbit with a succulent texture.  There isn’t much meat on the bones, after all, the guinea pig is a pretty small animal but it’s tasty all the same.  If you find yourself in the Andean parts of Peru, Bolivia or in the Sierra’s in Colombia and Ecuador, I strongly suggest getting that image of Fluffy out of your head and dig into one of the most traditional and tasty dishes the Andes has to offer.

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