by Anna Russo
Cusco is a city of churches, cobblestones, and cuy. Guinea pig (cuy in Spanish) is not merely advertised in the windows of restaurants on every street corner, it has been elevated to the level of of a touristic deity. T-shirts for sale display cartoon guinea pigs playing the guitar and drums – the Cuytles; I nearly bought a sticker depicting a guinea pig on a motorcycle. The Cusco tourism industry is certainly in tune to the adventurous eating fad: the cringing, squealing, ‘quick, take a pic!’ process of consuming the distant cousin of your neighbor’s pet.
But the Andean obsession with guinea pig is certainly not only to please tourists – guinea pig has been consumed as a delicacy for decades. Food stands to serve the hungry observers of the Corpus Christi festival had cuys piled high. But perhaps the best testament to cuy lies in the Cusco cathedral, just to the right of the central alter. Here, The Last Supper by Marcos Zapata is prominently on display.
Marcos Zapata is an artist of the Cusco School of Colonial Art, an artistic movement in which Peruvians learned techniques from Spanish masters but still incorporated native style. The Last Supper is a Peruvian rendition of the masterpiece by Da Vinci. Among other differences, notice that in the center of the table lies a guinea pig: in Peru, cuy was the centerpiece of the last supper.
I obviously could not leave Cusco without eating cuy. And if I was going to eat cuy, it needed to be last-supper-worthy cuy. So I did my research. Cuy has very little meat and is impossible to fillet, and thus is almost always served whole. It is either fried or slow-cooked in an oven stuffed with herbs. I opted for the baked guinea pig, as it seemed more up my alley in the flavor department. After scouring the Peru guidebooks, we decided on a restaurant: Victor Victoria (which also happened to have “deliriously good cheesy quinoa,” a plus for all of the other non-cuy eating trip members).
After warming up my taste buds with some mulled wine, the cuy finally arrived. It was only a half cuy (one front leg and one hind leg), and was served with an ear of Peruvian corn, fried biscuits, stuffed peppers, and potatoes. The fact that it was served with over a meal’s worth of sides should have been indicative of how much meat is actually available in the small package of a half guinea pig.
After taking the obligatory tourist picture of the cuy, I began what proved to be the incredibly difficult process of eating the animal. The skin is thick and tough, and the lack of a significant amount of meat below it to cut into made it very difficult to obtain a piece of guinea pig large enough to taste. After a solid minute of struggling, I managed to cut myself a piece. My response to my inquisitive fellow group-members and all others interested in eating cuy: it tastes like rabbit.
Cuy should be eaten with your hands, even in a nice restaurant. A fork and knife is simply infeasible. Once I figured this out, the eating experience was much improved. Overall: 8/10 taste, 6/10 ease of consumption, 10/10 recommend on your next trip to Peru.