Bizarre food: guinea pigs – pets or food?
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Despite our own obsession and adoration of these cute little pets in the UK (we all know someone who owns a guinea pig), the love is not universal. At least, not in the sense of loving them as pets. Indeed, if you are one of those who own a fluffy, adorable little guinea pig, it may be time to stop reading. In other parts of the world, guinea pigs aren’t loved as pets, but as food. Yes, really.
In fact, while we in the UK and other parts of the world react aghast to this idea of eating such cute little things, people in Peru may be looking at us just as strangely for keeping them as pets. In Peru, guinea pigs provide up to 50% of all animal protein consumed in the country…that’s around 65 million guinea pigs – almost one for every person living in the UK! In Peru, guinea pigs are not a pet, but a delicacy. Particularly in the Andean region of Peru, you’ll find these small furry creatures being roasted up, going by the name of a dish called ‘cuy chactado’.
The truth is that Peru is even more obsessed with guinea pigs than the UK and indeed, probably any other country in the world. For over 5,000 years, cuy has been part of Andean cuisine. History reveals that the ancient Incan nobility used guinea pigs for sacrifices to their gods. In a cathedral in Cusco, you’ll find a famous painting of Jesus and his disciples sharing a large platter of Cuy (we don’t remember this story in the bible).
Newly married in Peru? Expect a mating pair of guinea pigs as a wedding gift! They’re often raised at home in the same way some people keep chickens – not necessarily pets but rather, a source of food. There’s even a betting game called ‘tómbola de cuy’ where guinea pigs are released into a circular area with different numbered boxes surrounding it. Players place their bets on which number box the guinea pig will enter and whoever guesses right, wins! It’s sort of like a guinea pig version of a roulette wheel in a casino…you never know which one the guinea pig is going to choose.
Peruvians have gone as far as creating a national holiday (every second Friday of October) to celebrate this delicacy. So, you get the idea. Peruvians really are mad about guinea pigs. The question is, why? How did this nation come to love eating guinea pigs?
As mentioned, there is evidence that guinea pigs were important to Incan tribes over 5,000 years ago. They were used not just as a source of food but in culture and medicine too. Because they require much less room than your traditional livestock (pigs and cows), as well as the fact they reproduce extremely quickly and can be raised in urban environments, they are a much more profitable source of booth food and income.
Combine this with the health benefits of being high in protein and low in fat and cholesterol and suddenly, it’s not so difficult to see why they’re so popular.
With all that being said, you may be wondering, what does it taste like? Most people agree that it tastes a lot like rabbit, or wildfowl. It’s a little richer and ‘gamier’ than chicken, but it’ll feel like roasted pork shoulder in your mouth. Talking of roasting, you can cook it up this way, or by frying, grilling and even boiling. It seems to be the fried version ‘cuy chactado’ that proves most popular, though. Be warned – the dish will most definitely leave you with a sweet, smoky stench on your hands. Known by the locals as ‘tufo’, it’s tough to get rid of!
For some time, cuy was always considered a local delicacy, confined to the Andean highlands. However, since the 1960s, things have really taken off. It was the farmers of the Andes who were most well known for eating cuy but then, when they migrated to Lima in search of new work and opportunities, they carried on eating them. Little by little, Peruvians from other parts of the country were exposed to this and started to get a taste for guinea pig. At first they were served as a classic street food snack but pretty soon, restaurants picked up on the trend and suddenly, everyone was eating them!