Have you visited a gourmet restaurant lately and found cuy on the menu? "Cuy" is the name given the dish consisting of guinea pig. That's right. That adorable little furball you used to watch for hours scurrying around in a cage lined with wood shavings. So how did a simple household pet become a premiere plated dish?
Well, according to NPR, it all started in South America. In fact, in countries like Peru, Colombia, and Ecuador, the furry little rodents have been both pets and food for quite some time and are served regularly in homes and restaurants in the region. Over time, restaurants throughout South America began adding guinea pigs to their menu to meet the demand of expatriates from -- you guessed it -- Peru, Colombia, and Ecuador.
The dish made its way to the United States as an exotic food, an entree to be tried in fine dining restaurants. These were usually establishments specializing in Peruvian, Ecuadoran, or Colombian cuisine.
The dish is usually served whole or in halves and is usually deep-fried. Depending upon the chef and whether or not they believe the sensibilities of diners might be offended, the cuy is served with or without the extremities (the head and feet). Portions are about the size of a squirrel.
The problem in the US, though, is that there is an aversion to eating rodents of any kind. Sure, people in America eat squirrel (think "Duck Dynasty" and Miss Kay's Squirrel Stew) and rabbit, but those dishes are regional, mostly rural, and usually part of the area's tradition, not to mention a reference to socio-economic status. Squirrels are generally seen as park and community animals; rabbits are also looked upon as pets. Most are never consumed as part of a meal.
And it does not help that rodent is just another way of saying "rat." And Americans just don't eat rats.
Unlike some cultures in the world, such as in Asia where mice and rats are eaten regularly, Americans characterize such rodents as vermin and carriers of pestilence. Most would never eat them outside of a dare or under conditions of dire necessity.
So it is most likely that guinea pig, cuy, will likely only stay on menus as exotic treats to be had at certain times of year, such as at La Mar Cebicheria in San Francisco, which serves the dish once a year around July 28 (Peru's Independence Day). The guinea pigs are imported from Peru as well.
Urubamba, a Peruvian restaurant in Queens, NY, serves the delicacies one weekend each month, but demand is growing. Eight years ago when the restaurant opened, cuy wasn't on the menu.
But what does cuy taste like? Not chicken, it seems. Chef Diego Oka at La Mar Cebicheria describes it as "very oily, like pork combined with rabbit."
The eating of guinea pigs also can be tied into doing something "green," something beneficial for the world's environment. In South American countries, individuals are being encouraged to raise guinea pigs like chickens for their meat supply. Farmers are being enticed to raise cuyes in much smaller areas, foregoing the need to burn off or clear land. This will hopefully reduce the "carbon footprint" of raising cattle and other large livestock, not to mention the deforestation that comes with maintaining ranches and grazing areas.
So save a tree; eat a guinea pig. Save the rainforest; eat imported Colombian cuy. Chalk it up to an exotic eating experiment.
And try not to think about the fluffy little pet you used to have...
(photo credit: Tukka, Wikimedia Commons)