Not pigs, not from Guinea… but they are tasty

13 Jun
Roasting cuy, Gualaceo, Ecuador

Making sure the skin doesn’t burst, roasting cuy (guinea pigs) at the market, Gualaceo, Ecuador.

Cuenca, Ecuador
[by Paula]

Just because we’ve been stopped for a while doesn’t mean we don’t keep learning things – oh no. The trajectory of our learning curve keeps speeding ahead in one direction.

Here’s a few things from the last few weeks: 1. If you are baking at high altitude, you have to adjust the ingredients to compensate. 2. If you stay still long enough, you find stuff out – like which local shops are willing to break the law and sell you alcohol on a Sunday. 3. If you eat guinea pigs you will upset your friends’ children. 4. If you expect your car to be fixed by a given date, you must add on at least a week, maybe two, or more. And on a related point… 4a. When you get really angry, you forget every word of Spanish you ever learned, not least the word for “angry”.

Cajas National Park, Ecuador

Cajas National Park – like being transported to bonnie Scotland for a day.

We’d decided to travel 9 hours south from Quito and explore another part of Ecuador while we waited for our van parts to arrive from the US, and rented an apartment in the gorgeous town of Cuenca. It’s been a great base for exploring the surrounding area, like the Inca ruins of Ingapirca and Sunday markets in nearby villages. We hiked at the spectacular Cajas National Park, which – at a bracing 4,000m (13,000ft+) – was weirdly evocative of the mist-shrouded mountains and lochs of Scotland. At times we would look around and wonder if we’d been teleported back home while we weren’t paying attention.

Having an apartment does run the risk of becoming spoiled – what with all these luxuries like a proper bed, consistently hot shower, oven, brick walls, toilet, that kind of thing. We’ve also enjoyed wandering Cuenca’s bars and cafes, meeting people, and generally behaving like folk who live somewhere.

Roasted cuy, Ecuador

Guinea pig, as served to us at the restaurant.

We’ve been using the time to do a little work too. Which brings me on to those cuddly rodents. While here we took the opportunity to go out and finally try one of Ecuador’s specialities, the roasted guinea pig (cuy). This week I wrote a feature about our culinary experience, and a bit of the history behind it all, for the BBC News website. While researching I discovered one of my favourite facts – that guinea pigs are neither pigs, nor from Guinea. Mainly for reasons of abject laziness, I have re-printed the article in full below.

Now, the BBC is – rightly – a sensitive soul and it doesn’t like to go around gratuitously upsetting its readers. For that reason they felt forced to omit my description of the roasted guinea pig’s liver flopping out onto the plate and (ex-vegetarian) Jeremy grabbing the first bite. They also felt unable to use some of the more graphic photos of impaled guinea pigs being roasted over an open fire at the market.

We have no such high standards of taste and decency, but I will say this – the photo gallery below might not be one for the kids.

Days: 581
Miles: 17,551
Things we now know to be true: One man’s meat is another man’s poison (or pet).

———

BBC article below, or click here to go to the feature on BBC Magazine.

Could I bring myself to eat a guinea pig?
By Paula Dear
Cuenca, Ecuador

Eating roasted or fried guinea pig is an ancient tradition in parts of South America, and still common today. But in other parts of the world the rodents are cherished as cuddly, fluffy pals for children. How do you make the mental leap from cute pet to delicious meal?

As a committed carnivore I’m not in the habit of attaching personalities to the meat on my plate.
But this was a guinea pig, with four legs, a face and endearingly prominent front teeth. I used to have one as a pet.

My husband Jeremy and I were in a restaurant in southern Ecuador, where guinea pigs are regularly served up with potatoes and corn, and have been for thousands of years. Peru, Bolivia and parts of Colombia also do so.

We’d seen them being cultivated in a small rural home in Colombia, and impaled on thick rods before being roasted en masse in an Ecuadorian market. Eating traditional foods is a large part of the travel experience, so there was no way we would pass through the region without sampling this dish.
The roasted guinea pig – called cuy in South America – was brought to our table whole before being chopped into five pieces – four leg portions and the head.

I considered Jet, the tufty black guinea pig who was my first pet. He was forever getting lost and his antics were the subject of a story written by eight-year-old me, which won a local writing competition. That he died in the care of friends while we were on holiday – overwhelmed by the car fumes in their garage – was one of those dramatic childhood turning points that I never really got over. Could I move on?

The reaction from some of our friends on social media to our planned meal suggested cuy-eating might not become popular any time soon in Europe, where guinea pigs have been loved as pets since traders introduced them in the 16th Century.

When British TV presenter Philip Schofield tweeted about eating a guinea pig in Peru last year, he was criticised online and in newspapers, including a Daily Mail story with the headline: “TV presenter blasted for boasting about scoffing ‘pet’.” It quoted Animal Aid director Andrew Tyler as saying: “This callous provocation is despicable.”

Guinea pig for sale, Otavalo

A woman brandishes one of many guinea pigs she has for sale, animal market, Otavalo, Ecuador.

Briton Christopher Breen, who owns restaurant Cafe Eucalyptus in Cuenca, Ecuador, and serves guinea pig tikka masala, says there is little chance of his compatriots adding the animal to their weekly shop.

“Cuy catching on in the UK? I don’t think so,” he says.

It’s a line that many who are well-integrated into Ecuadorian society refuse to cross. Gary Sisk, 64, from California, retired to Cuenca 18 months ago and has otherwise embraced the local culture, but says he has no intention of eating a guinea pig.

“When I first noticed cuy roasting in the market I was kind of shocked because of course we had them for pets as kids,” he says.

“My Ecuadorian friend is always putting one in the cart when we go shopping. Of course they laugh at my reaction when I see one, because they have eaten them all their lives.”

There have been small-scale exports of the delicacy to the US, Japan and some parts of Europe – often at the behest of the Latin American diaspora – but consumption levels are unlikely to reach those of Peru, for example, where an estimated 65 million guinea pigs are eaten annually. Far higher quantities of chicken are eaten – more than 500 million per year – but guinea pig remains preferred for special occasions.

It’s in Peru that archaeologists report guinea pigs were first domesticated as a food source as early as 5,000 BC, prized for their high protein levels and – although the fat content is relatively low – as a source of fat.

They later became an integral part of religious ceremonies and folk medicine. To this day they are often the centre of local festivals, which are considered to be incomplete without cuyes.
Their significance in Andean society is famously acknowledged in Peruvian-influenced depictions of Christ’s Last Supper, in Lima and Cusco.

“The marinade and slow roasting process, involving regular basting, had given it a tasty crackling-like skin.”

But it’s not all about the past. Cuy is still a popular animal to cultivate in rural and urban homes for eating on special occasions or – as they fetch a relatively high price – selling in markets or to shops. Larger-scale production also exists, often focusing on restaurants and the small export market.

Indeed, some argue animals like this could be the future. Guinea pigs reproduce fast, taking up very little space and efficiently processing their simple diet of grass and vegetable scraps.
Raising cattle is a drain on resources, they point out. By comparison, guinea pig, squirrel, and other rodents are “low-impact protein sources”.

Matt Miller, a science writer for the US-based Nature Conservancy, is writing a book about the benefits of eating “unconventional” meats.

“Many animals that some consider ‘bizarre’ or ‘unconventional’ make a lot more sense – ecologically, economically, personally – to eat than modern, industrial meat,” he says.
Miller focuses on a number of rodents that are “abundant and can be sustainably harvested”, like squirrels, capybaras – the world’s largest rodent, also eaten in Venezuela – and guinea pigs.

He concedes the “cultural aversion” to eating animals like guinea pigs is “huge” in many countries. Could those who have only ever seen guinea pigs as companions ever make that leap?

Miller adds: “It’s not going to replace beef. But diets can and do change over time. I grew up hunting and eating squirrel – many rural Americans still do. There is a growing interest in many countries in food diversity, so I don’t think the idea of eating guinea pigs is completely hopeless.”

Back at the restaurant, we wondered who would take the first bite.

Jeremy was a vegetarian for 27 years until 2010, but has approached meat-eating with the scary zeal of a convert.

He grabbed the first piece. Delicious. The marinade and slow roasting process, involving regular basting, had given it a tasty crackling-like skin, while the dark gamey meat was rich and oily, not unlike rabbit.

Guilt tinged my enjoyment a little – just a little. I drew the line at tackling the head – popular with locals – while the ex-vegetarian devoured it.

—–

GUINEA PIG FACTSGuinea pig for sale, Otavalo, Ecuador

  • Also referred to – often by breeders – as cavies, taken from the Latin name for the group of rodents to which they belong, caviidae
  • They are neither pigs, nor from Guinea
  • Extensively used – with significant results – as a model organism for medical research in the 19th and 20th Centuries, resulting in the phrase “guinea pig” for a test subject
  • Queen Elizabeth I owned a pet guinea pig
  • An excited guinea pig will repeatedly hop into the air, behaviour known as “popcorning”
  • —–

    PREHISTORIC PLATTER

  • Sometime during the Pre-ceramic period (prior 2000 BC) of Peruvian pre-history the guinea pig was domesticated as a food source, with first appearances possibly as early as 5000 BC in the Altiplano of southern Peru and Bolivia
  • Due to its high fertility and ease of maintenance it was, along with seafood, the most important source of protein in the prehistoric Peruvian diet
  • Later in pre-Hispanic times, the cavy [so called from its Latin name, cavia porcellus] was also widely used in religious ceremonies, divination and curing rituals
  • Since other animals belonged to the state, the common person only had the cavy as a dependable meat source
  • The Incas raised guinea pigs in large numbers to eat at their fiestas. One dish is known of cavy and capsicum pepper in which smooth pebbles were placed in the stomach cavity to facilitate the roasting of the animal
  • It also had a major part to play as a sacrificial animal. Annually, 1,000 white cavies were sacrificed in [Peru’s] Cuzco public square to placate the gods and prevent them from damaging crops.
  • Source: The Cavy and South American Civilization, Jonathan Trigg MA, Dept of Archaeology, University of Liverpool

    ——-

    AND NOW IT’S TIME… FOR THE GALLERY. Click on any image to open in slideshow format.

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    4 Responses to “Not pigs, not from Guinea… but they are tasty”

    1. Stephanie June 22, 2013 at 7:49 pm #

      Agh! I had guinea pigs as pets too, and my brother and i had to pass on them when offered in Peru. Interesting that they’re not high in fat, as they all seem like little chubbers! Great article, love the sidebars…

      • seventeenbysix June 23, 2013 at 8:54 am #

        Thanks Steph! Maybe this time you’ll consider trying one…. ? Hope all is well up there. Paula

    2. Mark June 26, 2013 at 10:55 am #

      Hey guys enjoying the blog and am actually here in Ecuador as well. Always great meeting other overlanders I you’re going to be around for a bit still. I will probably hit the coast soon and then get over to Cuenca after. Happy travels!!!

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