Eating guinea pig: A pet at home, dinner in Peru
An old saying begins, “If you love somebody, let them go.” If you’re traveling to Peru and you’ve had a guinea pig as a pet, a more fitting expression may be, “If you’ve loved something, put it in your belly.”
The guinea pig my husband Todd and I had wasn’t a pet, not precisely. He was feral, living free in our urban San Francisco backyard, a bucolic vision so unbelievable that a friend accused us of pulling his leg until he saw the guinea pig for himself.
But the guinea pig was real, an escaped pet from some neighbor kids, happily roaming wild in ours and a few adjoining yards. He had a white burst of head hair, a cross between Donald Trump’s toupée and Einstein’s electric hairdo.
We named him “Guillermo Ferál,” a Latinoized play on Will Ferrell, perfect for a Mission District guinea pig with a lot of body hair. Over time, Guillermo got so accustomed to us that we could feed him by hand, if he was in the mood.
Guillermo the guinea pig lived nearly two years free and easy, getting fat on sprouts and complacent from his cushy digs. And eventually he got old, slow, and even a little dumb — a very vulnerable combination for a feral fur ball.
One rare warm San Francisco night, when Todd and I just happened to be home with the windows open wide, we heard a pained screech followed by a frantic whimpering. We vaulted over furniture in our rush to race into our backyard, arriving in time to see a flash of furry white disappear through a hole in a very high and otherwise solid and unclimbable wooden fence. Guillermo had been carried off by a raccoon, caught out in the open during a reckless late-night graze.
For what was only minutes but felt much longer, the whimpering continued along with sounds of tearing. Then the whimpering diminished. Then it stopped. A few days later, our neighbor found some small bones and wads of fur.
Guillermo died several years ago. After such a tragic end to our feral friend, you’d think that Todd and I wouldn’t be able to bear to eat guinea pig during our travels to Peru, where it’s a common protein source. But, like many Peru visitors, we wanted to try all the local specialties we could, including cuy (guinea pig), which was first bred as food in in the Peruvian Andes.
But, we couldn’t bring ourselves to order guinea pigs deep fried into an attack pose, claws and teeth bared, posed to shock and impress tourists, but so greasy and stringy from over-frying that they’re rarely eaten in their entire. Instead, we ate guinea pig in Ollantaytambo, a small town not far from Machu Picchu, deboned and stuffed with local vegetables then wrapped in bacon.
We ate Cuy Pequinés (guinea pig Peking duck style) in Cusco at one of Gastón Acurio’s famous gastronomic restaurants, the skin pan-fried crisp, served with pliable pancakes made from maíz morado (dark purple Andean corn).
Perhaps we paid too much for our frou frou Nuevo Andino-style guinea pig, but we wanted to try dishes by Peruvian chefs being creative with the heritage ingredient. Besides, if we were going to eat meat that reminded us of a furry friend, it needed to taste really good.
The verdict: There’s nothing to fear about eating Peruvian cuy. The dark meat is a little fatty and gristly. To me, guinea pig meat was reminiscent of duck legs but with less gaminess, or chicken wings but with more gaminess. Eating guinea pig is an experience worth trying — if not to satisfy foodie inclinations, to taste a sustainable protein that sustains millions of people in South America every day.
The old saying continues, “If you love somebody, let them go, for if they return, they were always yours. If they don’t, they never were.” Guillermo was more wild than the guinea pigs in Peru, which are bred for domestication, portability, and nutritional value.
It turns our, eating guinea pig in Peru was easy because Guillermo was never actually ours.