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Peruvians Eat Guinea Pig and Call it Cuy

Cuy is a beloved Peruvian dish dating back nearly 1,000 years. Served at weddings, parties, and holidays, it’s a traditional Andean food.

But this delicacy may be troubling to some Americans since it’s essentially the same as guinea pigs. Yes, the very same animal many of us kept as pets when we were kids. Despite this fact, the meal is gaining popularity in the U.S.

So what’s the deal with this puzzling snack? Join us as we discover what makes this dish so popular with Peruvians.

Let’s dig in!

Is Cuy Really a Guinea Pig?

It wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that Peruvians eat guinea pigs. But it wouldn’t be entirely accurate, either. Cuy refers to a specific breed of giant guinea pig raised almost exclusively in South America. Although they’re the same species, the critters Americans keep as pets are different breeds than those in South America.

Cuyes have distinctive characteristics. They’re larger and more muscular than American breeds. It’s also common for them to have extra toes thanks to a genetic abnormality. And they’re typically red, white, or a mix of the two colors.

Unlike their American cousins, giant guinea pigs dislike human contact. Cuyes tend to make noise when you handle them. And they can also become aggressive with humans and other animals. So despite appearances, cuyes are actually fairly different from American guineas.

Girl holding guinea pig
In Peru, guinea pigs aren’t pets, but instead are used as a meal.

Why Do Peruvians Eat Cuy?

Cuy has been eaten for centuries. The dish goes back to the Inca civilizations of the 12th century. In fact, the critters are native to this part of the world.

The giant guinea pig’s distinctive name comes from the squeaky sound of its voice. Also called “cavy” and “cobayo,” they’re raised on farms just like chickens and cows. People from Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru enjoy this delicacy.

Cavy is a wildly popular dish: an estimated 65 million cavy are consumed annually in Peru alone. It’s a staple at festivals and special events. The giant guinea pig even has its own holiday. The Festival of the Cuy takes place on the second Friday in October in Huacho, Peru. 

Is Cuy Good For You?

Cuy boasts many health benefits. The meat is an excellent source of lean protein with almost zero fat. They also contain Omega-3 fatty acids, which are critical for heart health. Many families raise their own animals on organic diets, and they’re usually well-cared for.

The cobayo isn’t just healthy; it’s also very sustainable. These creatures are small enough that they don’t require large pastures or too many resources. Several giant guinea pigs can live healthy lives in one large cage.

What Does It Taste Like?

Cuy has a reputation for being delicious. It’s a heavy dish, and the meat is naturally oily. It’s similar to duck or other fatty poultry. When fried or roasted, the skin becomes crispy, much like pork or chicken.

Some compare the giant guinea pig’s taste to a mixture of rabbit and chicken. Its flavor is rich and slightly gamey. Since cavy has been eaten for centuries, there are countless ways to prepare and enjoy this delicious meat.

Pro Tip: Want to try some foreign food? Find out What Are Empanadas (and Why They’re My New Favorite Snack).

Guinea pig eating a leaf
While cuy is a Peruvian delicacy, it is not so common in the US.

Cuy is a pretty uncommon dish in America. So you might wonder whether it’s even legal to consume here.

The answer is yes! The giant guinea pig is considered an exotic meat by the FDA. This means it’s actually highly regulated by the agency. Bison, rabbit, and venison fall into the same category as the humble cobayo.

This traditional treat is gaining popularity as more people move to the U.S. from South America. Many Latin American and Hispanic grocery stores stock the meat in their frozen aisles. And in some cities, restaurants even have cavy on their menus. Andean eateries in Queens and Los Angeles regularly serve this delicacy.

What Is the Best Way to Cook The Peruvian Delicacy?

There are as many ways to prepare cuy as there are to prepare chicken, pork, or beef. It’s a versatile meat that does well with various cooking methods.

One of the more traditional ways to cook giant guinea pigs is by spitting and roasting. Cuy al Horno, or roasted cuy, is such a popular dish that folks travel from all over the world to try it. The meat marinates in garlic and spices before going into the oven. Once cooked, potatoes and a delicious pepper-and-peanut sauce usually accompany the dish.

Cuy Chactado, or fried cavy, is another popular preparation. After being carefully cleaned, the meat is seasoned and cured in the sun. After this, the cook breads it in flour and pan-fries it in hot oil. Potatoes and vegetables are popular sides for this dish, but some people serve it with sweet potatoes and corn.

For spice lovers, there’s Picante de Cuy. The cobayo boils in one pot while hot peppers and spices liquefy in another pot. The broth and pepper mixture combines with sauteed garlic and onion to create a delicious sauce. Finally, the cook fries the meat before topping it with the spicy marinade.

Is Cuy Worth a Taste?

Those who grew up with pet guinea pigs may find eating cuyes troubling. Their American cousins are so cute that it can be hard not to think of them as pets.

But there are some benefits to eating giant guinea pigs. By all accounts, this traditional Andean food is delectable. It’s also incredibly healthy, not to mention climate-friendly. And after so many centuries, there’s surely a recipe to please any palate.

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