An Eye Witness Report: Does guinea pig really taste like chicken?

24/Septiembre/2012 | 20:07

By Deke Castleman

“It tastes like chicken” is such a common expression that it has almost become a self-fulfilling prophesy: Any uncommon meat is now compared to the bland standard of this particular poultry.

Rabbit, quail, ostrich, goose, pigeon, ptarmigan, frog, turtle, alligator, snake, iguana, even kangaroo and the two-toed amphiuma (a type of salamander) have all been described as tasting like chicken.

What about cuy?  We will get to that in a moment.  First a little background on this herbivore.

Traditionally, cuy is reserved for ceremonies and important events, but since the 1960s, it has become much more commonplace, though it remains a dish for a social occasion, often eaten at a restaurant with friends and/or family.

Cuy is Spanish for guinea pig, believed to have been domesticated as early as 5,000 BCE by prehistoric tribes in the Andes, and thus has been a regional source of animal protein for roughly 7,000 years.

The name “cuy” derives from the sound they make, high-pitched bird-like chirps: “cuy cuy.” The origin of the English name, guinea pig, is uncertain, since it doesn’t come from New Guinea and has nothing to do with pigs. “Guinea” might be a corruption of Guiana in South America. Or it could refer to the guinea coin, the price for each when the Spanish brought them back to Europe, where it immediately became popular as a household pet. Queen Elizabeth I owned one, which may have contributed to its popularity as a pet.

In South America guinea pigs have never been source of companionship, but rather nutrition.  So the question for so many who visit this region is, “How does it taste?”

That’s exactly what aimed to discover other night-- Greg Madeiros, Esthela Pilco, and myself -- at the place for cuy in Cuenca: Mi Escondite, located near Las Cuatro Esquinas de Ricaurte.

Mi Escondite (“My Hiding Place”) is deceptively large, with five separate rooms, one in the back is big enough for a 20-person table and a few smaller ones.

At the same time, the menu is purposely small. Other than cuy, you can order grilled breast of chicken and lomo de cerdo (pork loin/cutlets), and a plato Cuencano (fritata, mote pillo, llapingacho, and avocado). Saturdays and Sundays they serve chicken al jugo (stew).

When take a seat at Mi Escondite, a big bowl of popcorn and a small bowl of ají will greet you. The popcorn is bottomless; it helps fill the 30 to 45-minute gap between ordering serving.

We also enjoy the traditional drink: sangoracha, made from the sangorache plant. Indigenous to the Andes, sangorache has furry reddish-purple leaves with white or black seeds and is in the same family as amaranth.  A tea is made from the stalks, then combined with sugar and aguardiente (sugar-cane alcohol).  Sangoracha is red, always served hot, and it helps cut the grease of the cuy meat. A large jarra at Mi Escondite costs $9.

Depending on the size of the cuy, it takes 60 to 90 minutes to prepare a cuy.  Upon arrival (reservations required), your cuy has ostensibly been spinning on the spit for a half-hour or so.

Another stop-gap tradition is habas con queso: plates of queso fresco (medium-soft cheese) and habas (fava beans). They’re go great  together, slathered with ají, or chili pepper sauce.

Finally, dinner arrives: cuy asado split into quarters, accompanied with other dishes: papas jugosas (potatoes in sauce), mote blanco (big-kernel white corn, like hominy), and half of a hard-boiled egg;

Depending on the region, cuy can be served fried (chactado or frito), roasted (al horno), barbecued (pachamanca), or in a casserole, fricassee, or soup (locro de cuy). In Ecuador, it is often prepared broiled (asado), usually over a rotisserie with an oil or lard glaze, as at Mi Escondite.

The cuy is served whole, head included (though even Esthela, who loves cuy and has eaten it her entire life, can’t stomach “el cerebro”). You also come across the internal organs, which taste like turkey giblets. The little feet make convenient handles for holding the animal. The skin is crispy and crunchy.

Everyone agrees that it takes some effort to eat cuy, but that’s half the fun, and we reduced the rodent to a minor pile of little bones. One cuy was sufficient to fill our three appetites.  We also had a jarra and a half of sangoracha, along with queso y habas.   The whole meal came to around $40, taxes and service included.

After eating, it’s traditional (and necessary) to go to the washroom area: toilets for men and women and a nearby two-faucet sink. The Spanish word for the telltale smell is tufo (stink), and all the soaping and scrubbing in cold water doesn’t quite get it off, which makes it difficult to explain a night of cuy and sangoracha with the boys or girls to a waiting spouse.

Now, the big question: Does it taste like chicken?

Well, the meat is sweet, slightly smoky, and surprisingly greasy for such a little rodent, more similar to duck. In the end, it tastes -- are you ready for this? –- exactly like cuy, meaning you simply have to eat it to know..

Mi Escondite is open Tuesday through Sunday, 12:00 p.m. to 12:00 a.m.  A full cuy costs $18.  Full chicken stew serving is $16.  Other plates range from $5-7.  To get there, pass the airport and take a left up the hill into Ricaurte. Got left at the traffic light (unpaved road); the restaurant is 25 meters on the left.  The #11 bus drops you off at Cuatro Esquinas.  For reservations call 289-0228. 


Ciudad Cuenca

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lbrashear - en Diario HOY - Noticias de Ecuador.