Cuy in Pisaq, Valle Sagrado Peru

Cuy al horno and potatoes -- the way it's been cooked for a thousand years

People recoiled at the notion, their faces contorted with expressions of revulsion. I couldn’t understand why. “It’s just a guinea pig!” I explained. “No different than eating a squirrel or rat.” More pained faces at the comparison.

But in Peru – especially in the high altitude Andes region – there is no such reaction. Instead you see smiles and licking of lips. Because in Peru guinea pig – known as Cuy (pronounced “coo-yi”)  is not just a staple of mountain dining but a delicacy respected by all who appreciate the wonders of this country’s culinary offerings – which is to say, some of the best food on the planet.

Pre-cooked cuy in its cute little living form.
Cuy is not a shock value food in Peru. It’s an age-old part of the everyday diet in the mountain regions including such famous places as Cuzco. It’s even popular at lower elevations like in Lima, where it can be found in local neighborhood joints to high-end gourmet establishments. Well-heeled Limeños may at first say they don’t eat cuy, but will subsequently admit that they love it once the meat is removed and served fancy-like. That’s loco, I say – one should understand the origins of their culinary desire. And with cuy, that means having it the way it’s been eaten for centuries – whole.

A wood oven dreams are made of.

 So when in the Andean village of Pisaq in the Valle Sagrado we heard there was a guy down a narrow alley who roasts cuy al horno all day long, I was off like a shot to find him. I almost walked past the old wooden gate that opened into a cobblestone courtyard until, at the far end, I spotted an adobe barn housing a large stone and mud oven. The orange glow of wood burning inside lured me closer. It was an oven Mario Batali would kill for. The mud and straw bricks were made by hand, the oven’s perfect dome was stacked and set individually a hundred years ago by Indians who learned the skill from their fathers and grandfathers and ancestors before them. The outside was charred black from decades of smoke and near constant cooking. A trail of soot curled out of the opening and upward into the barn. This was the real deal, where the food cooks to perfection almost by itself, as if tended by spirits of the Inca who figured it all out centuries before.

Bread fresh from the oven.
This courtyard behind some local storefronts was not a restaurant but rather just a place where they cook simple food for locals to buy. But the industrious owner did have the good sense to set a couple of beat up tables off to one side, so we were all set. He was busy maneuvering his long wooden paddle deep inside the oven. With the smoothness of a gondolier he moved the paddle in and out until finally removing a dented steel sheet pan of freshly baked bread. The loaves were small, oval and golden brown. Tapping the thin crust returned a deep, resonating sound, indicating soft, steaming bread inside. Only a great oven can produce such things of beauty.

Roasted Cuy stuffed with simple herbs and some potatoes alongside.
Working the wood oven.
He set the bread aside, slipped the paddle back in and pulled out another sheet pan, this one lined with six fresh roasted cuy and a pile of locally-grown potatoes. He slid the pan down onto the ground by his feet as steam trialed upwards carrying a rich porky/charred/meaty aroma. The cuy were stretched out, giving them a surprising length. Their feet curled into clawed fists and their mouths, wide open, revealed long sharp teeth. If you taste your food first with your eyes but go no further, these were not especially delectable.

Fresh roasted Guinea Pig -- it's what's for lunch!
Until my gaze drifted downward to the skin below the shoulders – where the visual “taste” began to change. The gorgeous golden sheen of the skin, still bubbling beneath it’s crispy surface was enough to bring the most ardent roast pork lover to his knees. It exuded taste and texture, making my mouth water like Pavlov’s pet beside a ringing bell. The creature was small, but to my hungry eyes it looked like a feast of flavor.

Raising cuy requires little effort, space or special food.
Cuy is a more logical alternative to other meat for the residents of the high hills of Peru’s Andes. Raised for food as far back as 5000BC, the nutrition-to-weight value of a cuy is very high and they happily survive on local grasses and vegetable scraps from the houshold. More importantly, farming cuy requires little space or special care – they are often raised indoors –  and reproduce, well, like rodents. So growing cuy for food makes good sense for local farmers and, of course, tastes great.

The man offered to cut it up for me, his old iron knife at the ready. Quartering the beast revealed inside the body cavity a thin lining of local green herbs and garlic that he had stuffed in before cooking. He handed the pan of cuy to me with a few potatoes and an aji amarillo (spicy chilli pepper) stuffed with smashed potatoes, corn and peas.

Crispy skin like roasted pork, followed by succulent meat.
The first bite of cuy started with a profoundly satisfying crunch of skin, combined with a subtle sensation of eucalyptus from the wood in the oven. Immediately following was a moist penetration into succulent meat which appeared exactly like pork. The flavor was rich and deep, much like suckling pig, only lighter and even more delicate. The herbal infusion added a hint of vegetation suggestive of what the animal ate in life. From head to toe the cuy was luscious, not at all gamey and delivered a full-on meaty experience -- with virtually no fat yet with the rich flavor as if there was. One bite and my kids jumped in, followed by my wife. And when we were done there was little left but claw and bone.

From skin to bone (except the head), cuy resembles fantastic pork.
There is a lot of mystery around the name for this tasty food source, as it is neither related to a pig nor comes from Guinea. But before I finished chewing I realized – perhaps – why the guinea pig is called what it is. Looking past its cute little furry appearance, its semblance is very much porcine. From the color and texture of its flesh to the crispness of its skin and the flavor of its meat, cuy is like miniature pork. But not just any pork; like prized tukusen toriniku pork, so tender and juicy and filled with flavor. So perhaps its name was coined in a little village like Pisaq – a plate-sized personal pig waiting to be devoured just as they have been forever.