Did you know that Guinea pigs were originally domesticated for their meat in the Andes? For many years, these cute little critters were cared for and consumed at ceremonial meals by the indigenous people of the Andean highlands. Nowadays it is common place to see street vendors selling “Cuy” (typically the barbecued variety) which has become a major part of the diet in Peru, Bolivia and some parts of Ecuador and Colombia.
When you consider the following it is easy to understand why the guinea pig has become a delicacy throughout many parts of South America:
- Being a small animal they require much less room than traditional livestock such as cows and pigs.
- They are good breeders, able to produce up to five litters a year averaging three pups per litter.
- Their meat is high in protein and low in fat and cholesterol.
So I hear you asking… what does it taste like? Well as with many meats it has a ‘chicken like’ flavor but due to it’s gamey nature is probably closer to rabbit.
The guinea pig also plays an important role in both religion and culture for Peruvians. The religious celebration known as Jaca Tsariy (meaning – collecting the cuys) is a major festival in many villages across eastern Peru, and is even celebrated in smaller ceremonies throughout Lima. During the festivities locals will donate their guinea pigs to a Sirvinti or they may be brought to a communal area to be released in a mock bullfight.
Peruvians consume an estimated 65 million guinea pigs each year and the animal is so entrenched in the culture that one famous painting of the Last Supper in the main cathedral in Cusco shows Christ and the twelve disciples dining on guinea pig.
In central Ecuador guinea pigs are used in the celebrations for the feast of Corpus Christi as part of the Ensayo, which is a community meal, and the Octava, where castillos (greased poles) are erected with prizes tied to the crossbars, from which several guinea pigs may be hung.
Probably the most bizarre festival involving guinea pigs can be found in the Peruvian town of Churin. It involves dressing guinea pigs up in elaborate costumes for a competition.