For many people, guinea pigs are beloved pets that reside in tiny cages in their homes. In rural areas in both Peru and Ecuador, guinea pigs run around the homes of many, but for a very different purpose. Guinea pigs are served up in homes and busy restaurants alike as a culinary delight. They can be baked, fried, roasted and barbequed, eaten plain, or slathered in spicy sauces. For millions of Peruvians and Ecuadorians, guinea pigs aren’t just a traditional meal served up every now again to honour the past; it’s a protein staple that satisfies the needs of millions. For foreign visitors, getting served a full guinea pig, head and tail included, can be an off-putting experience, but there’s is a lot to learn from the Peruvians and Ecuadorians.
Guinea pigs, or cuy as it’s referred to in Peru and Ecuador, is an ancient dish that predates the Incas. In fact, there is evidence that locals in the region had been domesticating guinea pigs as far back as 5000 BCE. Cuy was, and is still, an extremely important source of protein in the region and can be prepared in a variety ways. In terms of taste, cuy is very similar to rabbit, but has a tougher skin and is a bit greasier. However, it is also very low in both fat and sodium, which makes it a healthier alternative to meats like beef and pork. A common serving of cuy will be roasted or fried, most typically whole, and served with sides of potatoes, rice, and a splash of hot sauce. Another variant of cuy, cuy chaktado, is spit-roasted whole while the mouth is stuffed with spicy peppers. No matter what your culinary preferences are, there is a style of cuy to ignite anyone’s taste buds.
What’s most interesting about cuy is the fact that it is an environmentally friendly, and very cheap, alternative to other forms of protein. Matt Miller, an American science writer with the Nature Conservancy, frequently explores how consuming rodents and other small forms of livestock is a more beneficial to the environment and a cheaper alternative to raising cattle and other forms of livestock. In order to raise cattle, vast amounts of land need to be used to graze the cattle. Having enough land to graze the cattle is just one part of the equation; the amount of farmland that needs to be used to produce cattle feed is staggering, as well as the fresh water that needs to be used on the cattle and to grow their feed is astronomical. Guinea pigs, on the other hand, can be raised in a very small area and fed mostly scraps. Additionally, guinea pigs reproduce very quickly and mature at a fast rate making their environmental impact negligible.
As the world progresses into the future, the demand for protein is going to continue to skyrocket. The current western model of producing beef, pork, and chicken is incredibly wasteful and cannot be sustained on a global level. The South American practice of raising guinea pigs is a valid solution to the looming increase on protein demand. From pets to plates, guinea pigs are an interesting critter that can do a lot more than just be a child’s pet.