|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.|
|Roasted Cuy stuffed with simple herbs and some potatoes alongside.|
|Working the wood oven.|
|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.|
|Crispy skin like roasted pork, followed by succulent meat.|
|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.