Perfecting The Cuy: Adventures Eating in Peru
The woman peeled back the skin from the tiny rodent’s body, and I cowered in the corner behind our group. Slicing around its neck, she was able to easily turn its flesh inside out. The muscles and ligaments of the animal were exposed for the first time to the outside air. There was surprisingly little blood. She ripped the skin from the tip of its toes, and I could see the little claws were left still attached to the skeleton. She tossed the discarded skin into a metal can on the floor. I could only imagine how many remains were decomposing inside it. Little flies hung in the air.
I had never seen something like it before in my life.
She placed the guinea pig on a thick wooden table, worn down in the middle from years of repeated chopping. The knife sunk into its body, and I could hear the bones cracking. As if someone was cutting a chicken into thirds, the woman carefully separated a little leg for me to try.
The last thing I expected walking into this place was to witness a pet I had as a child being prepared for dinner.
“We will be making a quick stop here before dinner,” Gabby said, leading us down a cobblestone path and into an alleyway behind the market. “I know the woman who works here, and this family has been perfecting the Cuy’ for over fifty years.”
“Perfecting the Cuy’?”
She walked us up to a dark wooden door, and I wondered how she could remember which one it was. I would have passed it by without another thought.
Entering the dim room, I saw a small pathway lit by a soft golden glow from the next room,
The smell hit me hard in the stomach– a stench I recognized right away as rodent. The sour, foul smell was overpowering.
I rose my hand to my face. The sounds of squeaking rodents bounced off the walls, like a giant wave of tiny voices carrying through the air. As my eyes adjusted to the shadows cascading across the room, I first thought the ground was moving.
It looked like the rippling of water, shiny little bodies blending together, crawling over one another, and my eyes scanned the room. ulti-colored mass of tiny rodents. As I crept closer to the fenced off area that they were swarming, for a split second I saw a little guinea pig face glance up at me, as if thinking, “Oh no! She looked at me!” It appeared to scamper deeper within the mosh-pit of guinea pigs, and as I scooted closer, they edged farther away from me. I reached in towards them, and I saw one brown with a white spot on it’s head- guinea pig actually crawl over another one of it’s kind, in a desperate attempt to avoid my grasp. Was I in some sort of pet store? What was this place?
But they did, however, appear well fed. There were large plates of food set out in three different sections for the rodents, and if I could see the floor beneath their little feet, I would probably assume it would be fully covered with little droppings. In comparison to the starved dogs outside, they were thriving, plump and energetic.
As usual, I was the last one lagging behind in the group, and everyone had made their way into the next room. I could hear a fire crackling from inside, and the warm glow of light welcomed me in. I stepped through the entry-way and it appeared to be like a person’s home kitchen. Fire-oven, with a rotisserie style-set up. They had food cooking, a sweet smell of herbs radiated from a pot on the stove, and my mouth watered.
Gabby, our tour guide, was talking to the group, explaining something.
“...It is very tasty, and it is a luxury here in Peru.,” She said, holding a piece of meat in her hand and nibbling off a bite.
“What is it?” I asked Brooke, who was standing in line to try some.
“Cuy’,” She said, and my eyes darted to the tiny bodies going around in circles over the flame. No, they were not some sort of small bird, or chicken. They were little skinned guinea pigs, skewered through their throats and out the opposite end. I glanced behind me, quickly at the mass of what I thought were pets in the opposite room.
A lady stood in the corner, smiling at us all, knife in one hand– ready to carve.
“I can’t eat that!” I said, backing away from their little burned bodies.
I looked down at my shirt– the little cartoon guinea pig seemed to look up at me, peace signs spelling out one giant irony. They were literally making fun of their own culture’s eating of guinea pig. I couldn’t do it. I was a squeamish twenty-year-old with a diminishing appetite.
Could I put away my soft spot for the little creatures to try to meat which is considered to be sweet, delicious and a delicacy?
“Come on,” Brooke said, looking at me with all seriousness. “Happy cows come from California? Have you been to Chick-Fil-a lately? Their mascot is a cow trying to egg you on to buy the chicken instead. Or try going to France and telling them snails are gross and frogs are tasteless.”
“I don’t care,” I said. “I’m not eating something I once had as a pet!”
“So if you lived on a farm you wouldn’t eat any animals you raised?”
“This is why I live in Ventura! I have cats and small caged animals!” I protested.
There was a long wooden tables and the small woman took a cooked Cuy’ and set it in place to chop. With each chop of her thick butcher knife, I flinched. She cut it into several pieces, and chose me, the awkward one standing in the back, to eat the first piece.
The bone was still attached. It looked like it might have once been a little forearm. There was nothing in the world that made me want to try it.
“Molly,” I whimpered, looking down at it. “How could they?”
Everyone had a little scrap of meet, and eyed each other in the way people giving a cheers at a bar might do. Oh God. They raised their little pieces, and together said, “One...two...Cuy’!”
I frowned at the piece of meat, “I really hope you don’t taste good.”
As I let the flavors mix in my mouth, our tour guide, Gabby, pulled up a small wooden stool and sat next to me. She began talking slowly, turning the piece of meat over between her fingers, as if thinking through each word she was saying.
“I know that Cuy’ is most often considered a pet where you come from,” She said, obviously noticing my hesitance. “Here, it is deep in our tradition, and most often considered lunch. It is very high in protein, low in fat, and extremely healthy. The taste, is like, rabbit I hear. We eat around 65 million of them each year here in Peru.”
“I don’t get it though, how did they end up as pets there and food here?”
She laughed, “The little fur-balls didn’t start out as pets until the British and Dutch traders imported them into Europe. Then someone eventually thought they were cute. They are great to raise commercially– relatively low cost to feed, take up little space, and reproduce quickly– which also makes them an easy pet to raise. It’s cheaper to raise Cuy’ than pigs or cows. Sometimes they are given away as gifts, in pairs of males and females, so a new couple can raise their own to eat for special occasions.”
I had to admit– it was still hard to think that the line between pet and plate could so easily be eliminated. If I accepted the idea of this, how far off would it be to think of someone cooking my beloved cat? And it actually tasting good?
The little woman who ran the little place came forward and asked Gabby a question in a language similar to Spanish but with more of an Andean native tongue.
“She wants to know if you would like to see a demonstration,” She said, asking us all as a group.
Up until this point, I felt like I had been pretty composed. But the idea of watching the act take place in front of me brought a memory to my mind.
I was sixteen, and working at a little italian food restaurant in the local harbor. We had just gotten a delivery of lobsters, and to my utter horror, they were still alive, crammed together in a box with their claws clasped with rubber bands. I remembered watching one of the cooks dropping them one by one into a steaming cauldron of hot water, and the low-pitched hissing as they boiled alive. I trembled on the spot, and with an internal switch set off, took off running with two lobsters in my hand. I fully intended on setting them free, letting them experience life and instead of being on the next plate being served.
I felt jaded in my conflict between whats culturally acceptable and what is not. Personal judgement? I wasn’t quite sure anymore. I glanced at the first room we walked through, and could imagine the pleas coming from each little rodent, screaming, “Save me, Save me!”
I chewed on the inside of my cheek, and didn’t make a sound, while the rest of my group tentatively agreed that yes, they would like to see how the process goes start to finish.
The little woman shuffled into the front room, and we followed behind. The stared at my feet– the floor was filthy, and bits of rodent droppings clustered together around the edges of the room. Sanitation was obviously not important when one considers the fact they are housing upwards of four hundred rodents in crudely made cages on the ground.
The woman started talking loudly, gesturing to the mass of guinea pigs on either side of her. Gabby started translating.
“Unless you want a special surprise,” She said, listening to each word the small woman was saying, “You should be careful when selecting which Cuy’ you want to eat. You do not want to kill a pregnant one, but one that seems the fattest from all angles.”
“Noted,” I whispered under my breathe.
“Aya!” The woman proclaimed, as she bent forward and grabbed a white and brown splotched guinea pig by the back of it’s neck. The little rodent twisted and shrieked, but the woman’s deadbolt grasp was solid. She had been doing this for a very long time.
“The easiest way of killing the Cuy...” She began, and I really hoped I wouldn’t have to see it get it’s head chopped off. “Is to take it’s head, turn it towards it’s chest, and press down hard.”
The woman demonstrated, and with a quick little pop, the Cuy’ fell limp into her hands. She held it up, no longer alive and fighting, with a smile of pride and accomplishment across her face. My eyes were wide, and I felt oddly impressed with the act.
“Here, the Cuy is cooked traditionally, whole, roasted with with a hot pepper in it’s mouth. In other places such as Cuzco, you might find it chopped into pieces and served with potatoes and a spicy sauce,” Gabby explained. “This food has been a staple in our culture since the pre-Columbian times, and I believe will continue on.”
Many people, like myself, who travel to Peru and encounter Cuy are mostly taken aback by the scene on their plates– served as the whole (head, paws and all).The preferred method of cooking? Just the way I first saw it, which will be eternally engraved in my mind– slow roasting on a rotisserie over a smokey fire, much like chickens you’d see browning in an oven at Boston Market.
I can’t say that when I finally returned home from Peru and walked into Petco to buy my cats some food, I didn’t feel the tiniest twinge of guilt when I glanced at the three lounging guinea pigs waiting for the next six-year-old to choose them as their first pet. After reading articles after article, the line that stuck with me the most was spoken by famed travel writer Anthony Bourdain, who after eating Cuy for the first time, stated “We could solve world hunger if we ate these guys more often. Delicious, breed fast, and everyone could have their own little coupe at home to raise them. If only school children knew how good these things were, there would be more empty cages.”
I’m not disappointed in myself when saying that I don’t think I will ever fully accept the idea of eating something I considered a pet. Who am I to judge the farmers who raise cattle–which have in different parts of the world are seen as pets– slaughter off a whole herd of them without a seconds consideration?
I present myself with my favorite scenario– lost on a desert island with the bare essentials. I would become an instant vegetarian, because I could never picture myself killing the animals. I couldn’t place myself in the position of the woman who so effortlessly cracked the neck of the small rodent and discarded its skin without any squirms or grimaces. I admit I never got pulled into the pro-vegetarian movement in the early 90’s that included films portraying the various inhumane ways slaughter houses kill their cattle.
It was easy for me to eat a burger because I never had to see the cows face before I bit into a piece of its processed, re-designed muscle in the shape of a hamburger patty. I was so used to seeing scrambled eggs on my plate I never really thought about the fact they are unhatched embryos of chickens.
Recently at a restaurant for a friends birthday, I was in the midst of a foodie paradise– many things I’ve never tried before and others that I have fantasized about. The most amazing flavors you will ever taste. All with delicate care and effort put into their designs, textures and aromas. I had eaten my way throughout the dishes, including foie gras– a soft-textured, over-fattened duck liver seared with blueberry reduction– on top a biscuit. It was delicious. It was even better than bacon.
Then the rabbit made its way in front of me. There, on my plate, was a full rabbit’s leg, deep fried with a garnish on top. It reminded me immediately of Cuy, and I picked up a piece to try. As I ate its flesh, I thought about a pet rabbit I used to have, and to my horror I had found it half-eaten in my backyard. Another level of the food chain won that day. I buried its body under the tree I found it by.
Could I eat it too? Do I believe people when they say that animals have been placed on this earth to be eaten? Or do I believe that Disney has it right when assuming our furry little friends carry about their own lives, feel fear and excitement. Then I remembered how much the item cost. Could I let twenty dollars go down the drain and the food wasted in the trash? No.
I sucked the meat off the bone of the rabbit, and I discarded it onto the plate. A little pile of bones marked the grave in front of me. It tasted good, and I figured, if I was hungry enough, maybe I could kill my own meal someday. I felt like I had risen on the food chain, just by a little.
“I never really liked rabbits anyway,” I said, picking up a tiny piece of leftover meat and popping it into my mouth.