In my opinion, cuy looks like road kill served on a plate with chips.
This is not only my opinion, I heard an Australian tourist say, when presented with one of Peru’s national delicacies… “Looks like it was run over by a freakin’ truck!” (He was an Australian, he did not actually say ‘freakin”)
So what is cuy?
Cuy is a guinea pig.
Peru is famous for two dishes, cerviche and roast or fried cuy. The former I love, the latter I have never tried, and won’t.
Cuy is not only confined to Peru, but much of the Altiplano.
Could I bring myself to eat a guinea pig?
Eating roasted or fried guinea pig is an ancient tradition in parts of South America, and still common today. But in other parts of the world the rodents are cherished as cuddly, fluffy pals for children. How do you make the mental leap from cute pet to delicious meal?
As a committed carnivore I’m not in the habit of attaching personalities to the meat on my plate.
But this was a guinea pig, with four legs, a face and endearingly prominent front teeth. I used to have one as a pet.
My husband Jeremy and I were in a restaurant in southern Ecuador, where guinea pigs are regularly served up with potatoes and corn, and have been for thousands of years. Peru, Bolivia and parts of Colombia also do so.
We’d seen them being cultivated in a small rural home in Colombia, and impaled on thick rods before being roasted en masse in an Ecuadorian market. Eating traditional foods is a large part of the travel experience, so there was no way we would pass through the region without sampling this dish.
The roasted guinea pig – called cuy in South America – was brought to our table whole before being chopped into five pieces – four leg portions and the head.
I considered Jet, the tufty black guinea pig who was my first pet. He was forever getting lost and his antics were the subject of a story written by eight-year-old me, which won a local writing competition.
That he died in the care of friends while we were on holiday – overwhelmed by the car fumes in their garage – was one of those dramatic childhood turning points that I never really got over. Could I move on?
…a lesson in diversity
Ecuador is snapping at Peru’s heels as a foodie destination, with a more varied natural larder, and young chefs happy to mix things up at a new wave of restaurants
Andrés Dávila ducks into a covered market in Quito’s Unesco-protected colonial centre. Aisles are laden with baskets of colourful fruit, sacks of spices and tables piled high with legs of beef.
He buys a selection of herbs from a smiling matriarch who sells greenery ranging from leaves for tempering altitude sickness to the gherkin-shaped San Pedro cactus, used in the Andes to brew a hallucinogenic soup. We’re getting supplies for dinner at Casa Gangotena, a restored historic mansion on cobbled Plaza de San Francisco. Casa Gangotena runs culinary tours of the San Roque neighbourhood, a place tourists have been scared to visit in the past, but where guests now join Dávila to stock up on ingredients each morning.
While the food that evening isn’t mind-warping, it certainly challenges the senses. We’re presented with four mini-tortillas topped with salmon and accompanied by variations on aji, Ecuador‘s indispensable hot sauce. There’s pepa de sambo (with pumpkin seeds and coriander) and another made from tomate de arbol (tomatillo). The spiciest is a Pacific coast aji made from three kinds of chilli pepper and christened pocos amigos (few friends).
Aside from being delicious, the variations of aji are a reason why the hitherto ignored culinary tradition of Ecuador – based on produce sourced from every corner of one of the world’s most diverse collections of biospheres – may soon emulate the global success of other Latin American cuisines, not least neighbouring Peru, with its ceviche-led food revolution.
A two-hour drive north of Quito is Hacienda Zuleta, a 17th-century farmstead 3,050m above sea level that was once home to Galo Plaza Lasso, president of Ecuador 1948-52.
It’s renowned for its food, and the quintessential Ecuadorian locro, (creamy potato soup) is as comforting as the rest of the hacienda, where log fires crackle in antique-filled rooms. More comforting still is a chicken and rice casserole, the recipe infused with South America‘s revolutionary past.
“It was the invention of my great-grandmother’s cook, Cotito,” says Fernando Polanco Plaza, the former president’s grandson. “My great-grandfather was a general involved in liberal struggles. No one knew who would come for dinner or who would be in jail, so this dish emerged from leftover rice, which would be mixed at night with meat and veg and sauces.”
Fernando tells me Ecuador should be punching above its weight: “For me, the stars of Latin American food are Mexico, Peru and then Ecuador, with its mega diverse ecosystems. Our food has been a secret for too long.”
In another of those ecosystems – high cloud forest on the other side of Quito – is Mashpi ecolodge, a glass-walled cocoon amid a 1,000-hectare conservation project. Here, the lunchtime starter is three types of forest manioc, with shrimp. Chef David Barriga brings in encebollado, a coastal fish and onion stew that Ecuadorians swear by as a hangover cure. A manioc pancake forms a bed for the next dish – four prawns and a tender chunk of steak. It comes with a tangerine sorbet and side sauce of “snake fruit”, named for its scaly skin.
Barriga is also keen to promote Ecuador’s food. “We have all the raw materials Peru has, and more.”