This past June, I spent two weeks in Peru and Ecuador where guinea pig—or cuy—is a regional delicacy. Though the general belief is that guinea pig is predominantly eaten in Peru, cuy appears ingrained in the culinary scenes of Andean villages and urban environments in both countries. Mom-and-pop restaurants have spires outside the storefront lined with hairless carcasses ready for preparation, and many households let guinea pigs run around the kitchen, fattening them on a diet of quality alfalfa and table scraps until it's time for a feast. Hell, Marcos Zapato's version of the "Last Supper" at the famous Cuzco Cathedral captures Jesus and pals still swigging their wine, but this time with roasted cuy for the main course.
Most Westerners don't have a problem chowing down on food that once had a face—for me, the carnal factor usually makes a meal taste even better. But when it came to my first experience of eating guinea pigs, the adorable fluffballs I once brought home from PetSmart, it was a different story.
Many of us stateside might abhor the idea of eating guinea pig—Andrew Zimmern has featured the dish more than once on his show Bizarre Foods. But in South America, cuy dates all the way back to pre-Incan times—long before we decided that guinea pigs can only be pets. Andean natives adopted the little guys as livestock since they multiply like rabbits and are easy to raise, and nowadays, most of the non-Andean population also enjoys their meat at family gatherings.
Mariela Zammora, a local guide who led me around her native Cuzco region, told me that her family always serves cuy during celebrations. "On my [late] father's side of the family, the most senior participant at the table always gets the head," she explained. "At one birthday though, my uncle—the oldest at the table—started shouting because he didn't get a head. My mother unfortunately didn't know about their tradition, and it turns out that she had thrown it away."
There are also drinking traditions that involve cuy, one being the search for the atuqcha or "little fox," a small bone in the head. "After we find the atuqcha, we drop it in a caporal filled with beer," a Cuzco local explained to me. "Everyone passes it around and drinks until someone catches the bone in their gulp." The motivation for finding the bone is that the winner will receive good luck. Considering the size of a caporal, or large glass, you'll probably feel lucky whether or not you get the bone.
While guinea pig is predominantly enjoyed for its tradition, Mariela argued that cuy meat is also popular for its health benefits. "[The meat] is low in fat and cholesterol, but high in protein," she explained to me. "It's really good for cancer patients. Eating cuy might eventually spread outside the Andean region."
Considering our antagonistic attitudes toward dog consumption in China, it seems hard to imagine Westerners—even the health-conscious or "culturally aware"—snacking on these cuddly companions. Surprisingly, though, Mariela wasn't entirely off in her predictions. NPR's Alastair Bland noted in 2013 that many Americans are beginning to venture outside their culinary comfort zones when it comes to cozying up to guinea pigs as meat. In metropolitan areas such as New York and Los Angeles, as well as some smaller cities such as San Diego, diners are embracing the still-rare occasions when cuy is listed on the menu.
Though I had spoken to many people about cuy throughout my visit, it dawned on me in Quito, with just hours left before boarding my homebound plane, that I still hadn't tried the dish myself. Rushing to catch a cab, I was determined to get a fix.
Doña Conchita, a restaurant in the suburbs emblazoned with a giant picture of a guinea pig, caught my eye. The interior was completely deserted aside from the owner, who I presumed was the eponymous Doña Conchita, and her daughter manning the open asada pit. Before sitting down, I approached her to ask about the process behind cooking cuy. I quickly found a giant wooden pole in my arms for a personal lesson.
As a scrawny white boy that can't even cook a whole chicken in the oven, broiling guinea pig was a non-starter. The little bastard wasn't even alive, yet it kept slipping through my hands as I struggled to get it around the pole Human Centipede-style. I shakily hovered the pig as far away from the pit possible, and the giggling staff made it obvious that this gringo probably won't have a future broiling customers their cuy.
Having spent weeks learning about this dish from locals, I thought my history of having pet guinea pigs wouldn't be a problem. But when the plate of crispy quartered meat appeared in front of me, I felt a sudden surge of nausea. I tried to ignore it and bit down on a leg, producing a loud, satisfying crunch like that of crispy Peking duck. The meat itself was tender and juicy, like a gamier version of dark chicken meat. And if this animal is truly low in fat, I'm surprised how many napkins I used get the grease off my face. Impressed, I started to go in for the second bite. Then I felt my stomach churn and dropped the leg.
It turns out that hearing people talk about eating guinea pig isn't a foolproof method of stifling your emotions, ethnocentric as they might be. Staring at the leg, I started remembering my own Chuckster Barkley and Squeaky. As I took my second bite, the memory reel kept playing; pretty soon, it was like I was chowing down on my childhood companions.
I returned to the airport somewhat queasy and dejected, although thankful I got to experience the Andean dish in its homeland. Plenty more visitors to Peru and Ecuador may try cuy, be it for the cultural experience or the test of will—and some might even fall in love it.