Everyone who visits Peru will soon be faced with the opportunity to sample one of Peru’s most controversial Andean delicacies (at least to tourists), the notorious guinea pig known as ‘Cuy’.
The exact history of the guinea pig as an important dietary source has been hard to decipher, perhaps due to the small size of their bones, but some archaeologists claim that domestication of these small rodents may have begun as early as 10,000 BC in the Altiplano region of Southern Peru.
Apparently, cuy are very adaptable to their environment though highly vulnerable to drastic changes in climate. This probably is the reason that they particularly enjoy the comforts of living indoors, most often in the kitchen where they are given leftovers, although they prefer and thrive on alfalfa. Quite some families will have as many as 20 cuy and treat them much the same as chickens.
Cuy are rarely purchased but more commonly given away as a mating pair to special guests, family or as a wedding gift. They are not, unlike Western societies, treated as household pets, and they are never given names.
Besides their importance as a basic source of protein, cuy play an integral part in the traditional Andean culture. They are crucial in a variety of socially significant feasting rituals. In addition they are vital to various Andean religious and ceremonial practices as well as having a long history of being used in the practice of traditional medicine. As for the latter, the cuy seems to be used as a diagnostic aid by passing a live cuy over the body of a sick person until the cuy begins to squeak, thereby indicating the affected area. It is then split open to allow the “curandero/a” (local shaman) to read its internal organs for a diagnosis. This is only one of the many medical uses of the Andean cuy.
Amongst its many variations of preparation, the most traditional dish is ‘Picante de Cuy’, which is fried with potatoes and topped with a spicy peanut sauce. Other variations are Cuy Soup, Stuffed Potatoes or the typical Escabeche de Cuy, served with onions, potatoes and vinegar sauce.
Recipe for Picante de Cuy
The complete guinea pig is marinated overnight in a mixture of spices, including cumin, black pepper, capsicums and dried red chilies. The next day, dissolve a red and yellow chili pepper and add to the blend just before cooking. Split the cuy into two, lengthways and grill until tender. Serve with rice or potatoes. Provecho!