The first time I was presented a plate of Roast Guinea Pig, or cuy as it’s locally known, the dish was accompanied by a huge sales pitch.
“This is a Peruvian delicacy,” said my host, who was an elderly gentleman proud to show off the bounties of his country. “This is what we serve to royalty.” He continued on and on citing the virtuous of the marvelous and mysterious dish.
In fact, he seemed so focused on singing the praises of cuy that I began to grow suspicious. Why did he feel the need to sell the item so hard? My concerns were grounded when the man’s daughter piped in to add her own helpful endorsement.
“It’s not a rat,” she insisted with an encouraging smile.
My host’s face crashed even as he tried to hush up his innocent daughter.
“What is it then?” I asked, interrupting the developing family dispute.
Encouraged that all was not lost, my host went back to selling the dish. He eventually managed to convey that “cuy” was, in fact, guinea pig.
“Interesting,” I said, and nodded for my host to provide me with a small portion. He did so eagerly, and sat waiting as I chewed and gave my verdict.
“Interesting,” I said again, forcing myself to swallow.
The human mind is a powerful thing, and it’s strange how a person who has no trouble cutting up a cow, or a chicken, or a white-tailed deer can become nauseated at the thought of cooking and eating a guinea pig. The taste and the texture is not all that different, but there is a certain hitch in your thinking that must be overcome in order to truly enjoy a nice roast cuy.
In all honesty, I haven’t made it to the point of full enjoyment yet.
Still, trying roast cuy is as much a right of passage in your trip to Peru as is seeing Machu Picchu—at the very least you need to get nice picture that suggests you tried it.
On my last trip to the Sacred Valley, I found the perfect spot to check off the “try cuy” box on your Peruvian itinerary. Many people would suggest ordering your Cuy in Cusco, but I disagree. In Cusco you’re going to pay S/. 80 or more and then you’re going to be stuck eating the whole thing or be forced to miss out on dinner that evening. A much better option can be found in the small village of Lamay near Pisac.
Lamay is a quaint little town that is of the “blink and you miss it” variety. As you pull into Lamay you’ll notice several statues of smiling guinea pigs at various intervals along the highway. In the central district of Lamay there are several small kiosks that consist of local ladies huddled over small fires tending dozens of roasting cuys impaled on charred sticks.
I’d hired a driver for my last Sacred Valley visit, and he pulled up to one of these kiosks with a gleeful smile.
“How much do they want for one?” I asked.
“S/. 35,” the driver replied.
Well worth it for a novelty photo. Still, my group didn’t want the meat to go to waste. Several among them were willing to commit to a taste, but nobody wanted to eat an entire cuy. Finally we arrived at a solution. I turned to our driver, “If we order one will you finish off whatever we can’t eat?”
“Absolutely,” the driver said eagerly. He seemed to be delighted at the prospect.
We tumbled out of our vehicle and ordered up a cuy. The lady at the kiosk handed us a nice juicy one. It was so juicy that you had to hold it upside down otherwise hot liquid would come flowing out of the hole in the cuy’s stomach.
The second we had the cuy in hand, half of our group chickened out.
“I don’t think that I can eat that.”
“Oh, come on!” I teased, “don’t be ethnocentric, this is a delicacy around here!”
The cuy’s little clawed foot made for a convenient way to hold the meat, much like a drumstick on a chicken. My friend David and I gnawed away until we got a good solid impression of the taste.
“It’s not a big deal,” David said, “I grew up eating squirrel.”
When we finished, we brought the remains over to the server and asked her to package it up.
“This is the half we didn’t touch,” I said to the driver. “We chewed on these pieces here.”
“It doesn’t matter,” the driver said, dumping everything into the container the server offered. “I’m eating it all.” He seemed to be trembling with excitement at the prospect of a delicious lunch.
We piled back into our vehicle happy with our silly tourist photos. Our driver was happy too.
Maybe after a dozen more trips to Lamay I’ll polish off a whole cuy. The meat does taste good, I’ve just always had a hard time chewing on an animal’s head.
I realize it’s a silly hang-up, but none of us are one hundred percent in control of the influence our minds have on us.
Oddly, I take comfort in that revelation.