‘Disgusting’ and ‘how could you stand eating it’ were some of the reactions we got after we posted pictures of us eating cuy, aka guinea pig, on Facebook. Next to being grossed out by the sight of a recognizable animal on our plates, some people were a little offended by the fact that we had eaten the cuddly animals at all.
A typical western reaction if you ask us. It’s just one of the many dishes and drinks that are part of typical Peruvian cuisine. Ceviche and pisco sour are probably the best known. Since we are not very big fans of fish and don’t drink alcohol (yeah we know: boring) and most of the other dishes didn’t really interest us, we had set our mind on eating cuy when we got to Peru.
Last Supper featuring cuy
Testimony to the importance of cuy as a staple meat in Peru is Marcos Zapata’s 1753 painting of the Last Supper in Cusco’s cathedral featuring a platter of cuy instead of the traditionally depicted lamb. Many households keep their own cuy at home (in cages under their beds for example) to be eaten at special occasions.
This festive side of eating cuy became apparent when we tried cuy at La Cusquenita Tradicional Pikanteria, a traditional Peruvian restaurant recommended to us by owner Carlos of our lodgings in Cusco, the Yawarmaki Hostel. While we were sitting at the table in our regular tourist-trash outfit, t-shirts and shorts, most Peruvian guests appeared all dressed up for lunch – little boys wearing dinner jackets and ties and little girls wearing their neatest dresses and pretty bows in their hair.
Because it was Saturday we were advised to have an early lunch at noon, as the place would fill up around one o’clock (when the folkloristic dance show starts) and it would be hard to get a table by then. So we arrived early and albeit not being very hungry decided to order both cuy options on the menu: fried and baked.
Once-in-a-lifetime eating experience
After nibbling away at the complementary choclo (giant white Andean corn kernels) for half an hour, the much anticipated main event finally arrived: two huge dishes of food with the star attraction spread out as a centerpiece in the middle. How on earth were we ever going to eat all that?
The baked variety proved to be the most photogenic but also the most difficult to eat, with a lot of little bones and some vegetable with the texture of reed stuffed into the animal. The flattened, fried cuy on the other hand had lost some of its original cuy-like appearance, but was also easier to consume and slightly better on the palate. But still not great.
To sum it up: it certainly was an interesting once-in-a-lifetime eating experience, but cuy lovers we’ll never be.
Other Peruvian dishes we tried
Next to cuy we also sampled some of the other Peruvian dishes on the menu. A short glossary of what we’ve tried and what we thought of it you’ll find below. Warning: restaurants in Peru more times than not serve huge meals. If you’re not big eaters then one dish will be enough for two people.
Ceviche – Raw fish marinated in citrus juice and spiced with red onion and aji pepper, and served with sweet potato or choclo. We don’t like raw fish, but managed to clear the big plate we ate in Paracas entirely.
Causa – Combines potato – of which there are hundreds of varieties in Peru – and avocado into one dish. It was like eating a cold salad and tasted OK but not great.
Lomo saltado – Chinese immigrants brought stir-fry into the Peruvian kitchen and now fusion lomo saltado is on almost every menu in the country. It’s a stir-fry of beef, tomatoes, peppers, onions, fried potatoes and soy sauce served over white rice. Lots of carbs, but as lovers of Asian cuisine this was by far our favorite dish.
Aji de gallina – Stew made with chicken and condensed milk and thickened with white bread. The yellow aji pepper lends the dish its yellow color. Nice dish with a mild taste that we ate at a balcony restaurant overseeing the Plaza de Armas in Arequipa.
Anticucho – For many people a dish highly ranked on the yukky-scale: grilled, marinated beef heart. The dish dates back to colonial times when Peru’s Spanish conquistadores reserved the cow’s organs for their slaves. Eating anticucho is less gruesome than it sounds: the pieces of meat are not identifiable as heart and taste like any other meat.
Alpaca – This animal is not only bred for its expensive wool, but also for its delicious meat. It’s served in an variety of ways. We ate alpaca several times – as a steak, as a burger and even on pizza. It tastes a little like beef, with a hint of game. We ate our best alpaca steak at a restaurant overseeing the Plaza de Armas in Ollantaytambo.
Pollo a la brasa – Peruvian-style roast chicken marinated in soy sauce, flavored with red peppers, garlic and cumin. Mostly served with French fries or yucca.
More about Peru: