Let me warn you. This post is not for the faint of heart.
In the mountainous regions of Ecuador people love to eat roast cuy (rhymes with fooey) or guinea pig. They raise them in small pens and eat them when they’re large enough to make a good meal. That could be a few weeks or a little longer. But eat them they will. For those of us that see guinea pigs as pets, this might seem very cruel. But for those of us who have eaten other animals that are raised for meat, like rabbits or suckling pigs, then this might not seem such a strange thing.
This past weekend, I had the chance to see cuy prepared as fresh as they come – straight from the pen, to the kitchen to be de-furred and gutted, to a spit, to the grill, to a plate on the table. The whole process took only a couple of hours. In fact, I didn’t realize that cuy was being prepared at all. I had visited the furry little critters in the morning on our tour of the farm. They were cute chubby balls of brown and white fur, some big and mama-like, others small and definitely not ready for prime time; all were skittish, rushing around their pen not wanting to be handled at all. But this should come as no surprise as we now know that one of their number was destined to become dinner.
Later that day when I came back from a short walk, I was looking to see where my husband was hiding. I was told he and the others had started the fire for afternoon meal, so I headed over to the building next door. I stuck my head across the threshold, and gave a tentative “Hola” to see if anyone would look around the corner. I was more than surprised to see a woman holding a naked cuy, deader than a door nail. She was running her fingers across its pale skin and pinching it to remove any last bits of hair that remained. The stiff little body looked very sad and I decided it was time to look for my husband somewhere else.
The next time I saw the cuy, he was all cleaned up, with bright red slits for eyes, a snout that looked very much like a pig’s, and these very delicate pink ears. He was stuffed with onions and herbs and had a pole stuck through his rear-end. That pole would become the spit. We learned that you can’t just place a cuy on the grill. If you did, the delicate meat would burn in some parts and not cook thoroughly in others. Slowly, very slowly, the cuy had to be turned. If it cooked too quickly, it could be raw in the middle. This was going to be a slow process.
After about thirty minutes, as the skin began to take on a toasted hue, our cuy expert brought in a spring onion cut like a brush and dipped it in oil of the achiote seed. This oil is bright yellow and as he brushed it on the cuy, it began to turn the same color as saffron, a gold tinted with a just a hint of red. Slowly but surely as the cuy continued to cook that brightness dulled to a golden brown. It was only when the cuy’s little paws could be twisted and easily come off that we knew for sure that the meat was ready to eat.
The prepared and roasted cuy laying on the plate looked rather like a sad puppy dog waiting to have his belly rubbed. His teeth, however, were gruesome, layed bare by the skin that had shrunk back from the hot fire. But a knife quickly took care of it all and he was split down the middle and shared by those who wanted to give him a taste. Even some of the Ecuadorians at the table had not tasted cuy before so it was a true international tasting experience. The meat was dark, like a turkey drumstick. The skin was thick and crispy at first, not unlike the skin found on roasted pork. But after it sat and cooled, it turned chewy and did not want to crisp again even after going back on the grill. Some of the meat was delicious, rich and just the right amount of greasy. Other parts were stringy and it was hard to work around the tiny bones.
The final judgement? Cuy tastes a lot like chicken.