Warning: The videos below may be disturbing for some people. Refrain if you think that will be the case!
“Here’s the cuy, I hope you enjoy it!” says my host-dad as he puts plates down in front of Joe, Liza, and me. The plates of just-broiled meat and vegetables steamed in front of us. At first, this was something unusual as cuy are considered pets back home, not something you eat. My host-family explained to me that cuy is not eaten on a regular basis, only for special occasions. In this case, we prepared this meal for my companions, who were staying over the weekend.
A cuy is a South American guinea pig. This endearingly cute and tiny animal is highly regarded among Ecuador’s indigenous culture and is utilized in several ways, but primarily as a food source. Here, cuy serves as a good source of low-on-the-food-chain animal protein for people living in the hilly regions of Ecuador. It is also used in spiritual practices and healing ceremonies, performed on the patient by a healer. My host family keeps a cuy farm in our backyard, where we raise about 30 of these furry rodents to sell and to eat.
The preparation of the cuy was interesting, but gruesome. For this meal, my host-dad and I fetched two cuyes to prepare. Then, quickly, my host-dad slit their throats, dispatching their living essence in a method done for centuries here. The cycle of life is so apparent here, not like the far-removed cooking experience I have back in the States. How often have I carelessly wasted food that had been killed elsewhere and required labor and energy to prepare? This reflection carried me through the rest of the meal preparation. (I’ve refrained from sharing my first video, because it is just that gruesome.)
After killing the cuy by cleanly slicing it’s neck, my host-mom placed the cuy in boiling water to make it easier to pull off the fur. Whatever fur was left, my host-dad burned it off at the gas ring stove.
With all the fur gone, the cuyes were gutted, washed, and put into the stove. Normally, a cuy is grilled outside, but as we’ve had two weeks of pouring rain, we had to use the stove.
Once the cuyes were roasted to a crisp, they were cut into pieces for everyone to eat. The meal was accompanied with tomatoes, potatoes, onions, and fried bananas. All these ingredients prepared for one meal. What a feast! The cuy had a crunchy, tough texture, and had a greasy chicken-like flavor. The cuy is best eaten with the hands as the meaty portions are easier to get at, so forks and knives are practically useless.
The cuy as a meal predates the Inca Period. My GCY friends and I had experienced a special cuisine of the Andes, a dish served by indigenous peoples from Ecuador to Peru to Bolivia. To be treated to a cuy meal is considered quite an honor in this culture. If you are invited to a wedding or christening here, you are surely to be served cuy. It was an interesting cultural experience to have helped in preparing and eating it with my friends and host-family. I now know that I will never see guinea pigs in the same way again. I wonder, did Americans, back when, have a similar experience before the advent of supermarkets and refrigerators, as I do now? The cycle of life is indeed so close here.
My host-mom and dad asked us if we liked the meal. Our only response that would mean anything was that we enjoyed the honor to have a meal with them in their home.