My first experience of eating cuy – guinea pigs, was at a restaurant in Plaza de Armas in Cusco, Peru. Even though it was a few years ago, I still remember vividly our dinner looking like a horrified rat, with its mouth wide open and decorated with sliced tomatoes. I did not like the taste, because it was bony with very little meat, and the texture of the skin was like chewing on a rubber band. In fact we abandoned our dinner and ran to McDonald’s downstairs.
I recently traveled to Ecuador, my enthusiastic guide Patty suggested cuy for lunch. When we arrived at the town of Selva Alegre about one hour outside of Quito, I saw a bustling street with people roasting cuy, turned out the entire street was filled with cuy restaurants and this is what Selva Alegre is famous for.
Patty passionately told me it’s rare to find a restaurant in Quito that cooks cuy as well as they do in Selva Alegre, which gave me some assurance. I prayed that the cuy would taste better this time around.
The cuy was put through a thick wooden stick then roasted on a charcoal fueled grill. I noticed that these cuy were much bigger than the ones I tried in Peru.
I followed Patty and entered the restaurant Picanteria El Hueco. The clamorous atmosphere intensified by the crying sound of a baby, and the smoke from the grill made it even more dramatic. It was packed with locals.
Feel the atmosphere at Picanteria El Hueco
We ordered the Cuy Entero – a whole guinea pig and Caldo de Gallina – chicken soup to be shared among Patty, Fernando (our driver) and I. When the cuy arrived, I was so thankful to see that it did not look anything like the one I had in Peru. In fact, it looked and smelled quite appetizing. It was served pre-cut with the skin roasted golden brown and placed on top of potatoes immersed in a house special sauce.
First bite into the meat, I was stopped by the tough skin. I bite down harder until I finally reach the meat. The meat was very flavorful and tender, and it was never gamey. The texture was slightly chewier but juicier than chicken. Because of its small size, most of the meat is close to the bone and you can never find a piece that is dry. I thoroughly enjoyed it and quickly went for a second piece.
I then tried the chicken soup, it was filled with natural flavors from the chicken and scallions. Patty told me these chickens were free-range chickens raised in this neighborhood, that’s why it tasted better than the chickens in cities.
Fernando asked if I wanted to eat the head of the cuy, since it was mostly skin, I knew it would be difficult for me to consume, so I told him he should have it. He happily accepted and said that it was his favorite part.
My second try at cuy has rewritten my memory of the delicacy of the Andeans. Although to most of us guinea pigs are pets and not food, people from the Andean highlands have been eating cuy for thousands of years. For them, cuy is not an everyday dish but a delicacy eaten during celebrations, special occasions and a favorite dish shared with loved ones.
If traveling to Selva Alegre is out of the question, try the restaurant La Ambatenita in Quito for authentic cuy dishes.
Picanteria El Hueco: Selva Alegre y Francisco Guarderas 776, Sangolquí, Pichincha