While wandering the streets of Peru don't be surprised to see small, whole animals roasting on spits and sold as a hearty snack or meal. It's called cuy, and it's a local dish that dates back to the 12th century A.D., when the Incas ruled the Andes. Cuy is made with guinea pig. But in Peru, the guinea pigs is not a revered pet; it is revered meat on the dinner table, and has been for hundreds of years.
What is Cuy?
The first records of cuy come from the ancient Inca civilization along the Andes mountain range in South America. According to legend, the name "cuy" came to being because of the sound the animal makes, "kwee, kwee." The guinea pig is native to the area, which is why the Inca peoples started raising them for food, creating small farms for breeding as livestock. Today cuy is still a popular food along the Andes, especially in Peru, Bolivia, Colombia and Ecuador.
Cuy is still kept as livestock today, similar to how it was when the Incas farmed them. Andean cuy look just like the guinea pigs found in the United States, but larger. The cuy are culled after becoming adults, when they are still under a year old. Cuy, also called cavy or cobayo, usually weigh around one pound, and some say the flavor is a mix of chicken and rabbit with a bit of gaminess.
How To Cook Cuy
In Peru, where cuy is eaten the most, it is often spitted and cooked via the pachamanca, a traditional earthen oven used to roast foods. These styles of cooking are especially popular in the markets and for home barbecues. Cuy can also be butterflied and fried or baked. Traditionally, cuy is served with large chunks of roasted or fried potato, corn and hot sauce.
If making cuy, expect to get the meat already skinned and gutted, two steps that must be done before cooking. From there it's all about method. You can bread and deep fry the cuy like chicken-fried steak. Or you can roast the whole cuy on a spit over a fire with the traditional rocoto pepper in its mouth. Or, roast the guinea pig in the oven as one would a quail or pheasant.
The texture and color are a lot like the dark meat of the turkey with the richness of duck. In general, treat cuy like any other meat. While the head is edible and enjoyed by many in Peru, serving it is certainly optional.
What Does Cuy Taste Like?
Cuy is a rich, oily meat akin to duck or the dark meat of other poultry. Its flavor meshes the gaminess of rabbit with polished livestock quality of chicken. Cuy is richer than most poultry, though it's been compared to duck in taste and texture for this very reason.
Cuy Vs. Rabbit
Because both of these animals have been raised as pets and food in various cultures (rarely both at the same time), they are the most comparable. Both are lean, dark-light meats that are lower in fat than many other common options such as pork, turkey and beef. Both also have a high protein content. The meat of the two animals proves similar in taste as well, and often cuy is compared to rabbit, especially when it comes to the gamey quality. They can be cooked in similar ways, though rabbit isn't normally served whole and on a spit the way cuy is.
The main difference between the creatures, other than appearance, is that rabbits have very long ears and hop where guinea pigs are smaller with button ears and scurry. And the two animals are classified differently. Rabbits used to be classified as rodents, but they are now officially in the order Lagomorpha, whereas guinea pigs remain in the order Rodentia. Both cuy and rabbits breed and mature quickly, which make them great animals to keep as livestock and raise for meat.
Where to Buy Cuy
It's not common to see cuy for sale in the United States, or anywhere in the world outside Peru, Bolivia, Colombia and Ecuador. While guinea pigs are raised for meat in these places, there are no notable cuy operations outside South America. The best place to source cuy is through a specialty meat shop and online meat sellers. When sourcing cuy from these outlets, expect it to be frozen and usually whole.
Keep cuy like any other meat, in an air-tight container, vacuumed sealed in a bag or any other vessel to protect the meat and the foods around the meat in the fridge or freezer. Fresh guinea pig will last about a week in the refrigerator if kept properly. If not using right away, freeze any meat in a sealed bag or container.
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