Every Andean village has its own opinion regarding the best method for killing a cuy. Some people twist its head. Some pull its head. Some, like our host Eucevio, prefer to give it a karate chop to the back of the head. After all, you don’t want the entree to look mangled when you’re serving guests.
Cuy (guinea pig) is a common pet for us Americans, but its roots in Andean culture go back thousands of years. Aside from being a food source, it’s an important part of traditional rituals and even healing arts.
It’s so important that fearing all-out rebellion by the indigenous people, the colonial Spanish Church wouldn’t ban the use of cuy, despite having destroyed nearly everything else of cultural importance. There’s even a huge 18th-century painting of The Last Supper in Cusco’s historic cathedral, in which Jesus and the Apostles are seated around a platter of roasted cuy.
Since arriving in Peru, I had tried to find authentic cuy in a restaurant. But it was always over-prepared. In Lima, I had little meatballs of ground cuy, tasty but unrecognizable. In Ollantaytambo I had chicharron de cuy, deep fried guinea pig legs that looked like minature fried pork chops. Again, it was OK, but why did they always insist on putting lipstick on these guinea pigs when serving tourists?
One day, we had the opportunity to have lunch with a typical Andean family. Maria and Eucevio Velasquez own a small farm in the village of Ccorao, where they grow a variety of vegetables and also raise guinea pigs. Being in their home was like being in the home of a friend’s parents. They were genuinely warm people who wanted to show us how they live. They put together an amazing traditional spread for us, our guide, and our driver to enjoy.
I sometimes complain, in first-world fashion, about our old electric double-oven which doesn’t have good temperature control and is a bit smaller than newer ovens. Maria is happy to have her wood-burning stone oven, with a little chamber perhaps roomy enough to roast a small chicken. They proudly showed us a recently-installed water pipe running up through the hot stone, with a spigot to give them hot water. The rest of their water is outside, as is a squat toilet and a (cold) shower.
We had a variety of potatoes along with roasted corn, beans, Andean cheese, and quinoa soup. One potato preparation we enjoyed is common in the Sacred Valley, but not in the U.S. They are first dried whole, which was an Incan preservation technique; dried potatoes will keep for a very long time. Later they’re soaked in water to rehydrate them, and then they’re cooked. It gives them a slightly rubbery texture, but not at all unpleasant.
Maria came out of the kitchen with a whole, roasted guinea pig presented on a bed of potatoes, and proceeded to cut it up with a chef knife. Well, she tried to cut it up. Apparently the skin is really tough. After struggling with it for some time, our driver took over with a serrated blade and made relatively quick work of it. And finally, I was about to enjoy my heart’s desire. Yvonne, on the hand, was a bit more dubious.
You really can only eat the legs and the head. So, you ask, what was it like? It was moist, tender and delicious. It tastes like turkey leg, but without all that meat to get in the way of the tiny bones. In other words, but a lot of effort for little reward.
Afterward, we had shots of a delicious home-made liqueur which was a bit like Jagermeister. Eucevio told us that this is traditional after eating guinea pig. “You have to drink it to kill the cuy, otherwise it might wake up and bite you,” he laughed. Just to be sure, I killed it twice.