Three Ways to Eat a Guinea Pig
Guinea pig, or cuy (named, apparently, for the sound the animal makes), is one of the most popular food animals in the Andes, and it's traditionally served whole. In Peru the two main preparations are chactado (fried) or al horno (oven-roasted). The name chactado comes from the use of a chaquena, or cooking stone, in the process.
Yes guinea pigs are rodents, yes we think of them mostly as pets, and yes they're cute. But rabbits are also all of the above and many people, myself included, eat them. I certainly wasn't going to visit Peru and not try guinea pig at least once. As it turned out, I had it three times, three different ways.
The traditional whole cuy was actually the second way I tasted the meat. It was in Ollantaytambo, in the Sacred Valley. I was looking for a place to eat lunch and I saw a restaurant that listed cuy, both chactado and al horno, on a chalkboard out front. I asked the woman who was standing in the doorway at the time whether they served cuy for lunch. Yes, she told me, but it would take about a half hour. That was fine with me. I had no pressing business in Ollantaytambo that day. I ordered chupe de quinua (quinoa soup) as a starter.
I had neglected to ask whether my cuy would be al horno or chactado, but judging by the texture of the skin I'm assuming it was chactado, which I guess would be the quicker preparation.
Tastes like chicken, right? In a sense, yes. If rabbit is sort of like white meat chicken, cuy is sort of like dark meat chicken. But it has a somewhat richer flavor all its own. I'd say that cuy is tastier than rabbit.
Cuy is actually pretty expensive in restaurants, even humble ones, by Peruvian standards, and I'm not sure why. A cuy dish may cost from 50-70 soles (roughly $17-23), while an ample chicken dish will cost more like 15 soles ($5).
My first experience of cuy had been in a decidedly more genteel form.
It was at an upscale restaurant and tapas bar in Cusco called Cicciolina, which serves an eclectic mix of dishes, including Italian and Novo Andino (i.e., new twists on traditional Andean foods). One of their appetizers is a causa topped with shredded cuy (25 soles). A causa is a square cake of mashed yellow potatoes that is usually topped with something, usually something other than cuy. I should have asked what the little green things on the side were. They were a sort of starchy fritter made with a deep green vegetable--not sure whether they were bean or potato based.
I had yet another Novo Andino cuy appetizer for my final dinner in Peru, at Huaca Pucllana, in Lima. It was a chicharron de cuy, crispy guinea pig skins (with meat), served atop fried sweet plantains and topped with pickled onions.
Clearly there's more than one way to skin a guinea pig.
Watch a video (in Spanish) about cuy chactado preparation: