Gastronomic and Medicinal Traditions of the Andean cuy in Peruvian Cuisine

By  Kathleen Kole de Peralta

The last thing Jesus ate was guinea pig. In his 1753 version of “The Last Supper,” Marcos Zapata painted the Andean cuy (guinea pig) as the main entrée for Jesus and his disciples. The bald, splayed carcass greets visitors and parishioners inside Cuzco’s main cathedral. But the fusion of religion and Andean cuisine marks more than an important meal: this tiny rodent has a long gastronomic history in Peru.

Marcos Zapata’s The Last Supper. Credit: Wiki Commons.

Archaeological records date its consumption at least 5000 years ago, when Andean peoples savored diets rich in tubers such as potatoes, ulluco, and mashua, along with quinoa (a protein-rich seed), maize, legumes, and meat from camelids, deer, guinea pigs, dogs, and birds.[2] In the fifteenth century, guinea pigs were considered the common person’s meat, because other animals were more tightly controlled by the Inca state.[1]

Guinea pig. Credit: The Author.

Cuyes are an efficient meat source. When compared to larger quadrupeds, they do not require nearly as much care, food, or space. Guinea pigs need only four pounds of food to produce one pound of meat (compared that to a cow which needs eight pounds of food to produce one pound of meat). And, they are small enough to raise in-house; they thrive without cages, regular meals, or controlled breeding. Some even run freely throughout their keepers’ homes, retreating to adobe huts or chicken wire cages (cuyeros).[3] A typical breeding ratio keeps 1:7 male to female guinea pigs, with the females gestating three months and bearing three to four babies at a time.

In the early-modern period, guinea pigs were used in religious rituals and and folk medicine. Guinea pig entrails could predict the future: “Inca haruspices (cuyricucc) opened the animals with their fingernails and inspected the entrails to predict future events.”[4] The Indigenous chronicler Guaman Poma de Ayala described their symbolic role in Chacra Conacuy (The eighth month in the Incan calendar, usually around July) where the Incas sacrificed “1000 white guinea pigs, along with 100 llamas, in the plaza of Cuzco, the Inca capital.”[5] Indigenous healers also used cuy to treat nerves and earaches.[6] In Shoqma, a practice still observed today, an Andean healer rubs warm guinea pig viscera on a person to pass illnesses such as rheumatic and abdominal pains from the human to the animal.

Guinea pig is also prized for its gastronomic value. What exactly are the culinary possibilities for one to two pounds of guinea pig meat? The Corina preparation combines fried bits of meat in a pot with potatoes, onion, and capsicum pepper. A soup variation uses the animal’s boiled tripe. Across these recipes, capisicum pepper appears as a common ingredient, and is used liberally when roasting the animal over a fire.[7] The cuy canca recipe is described by Daniel Gade here:

The neck is broken, then the animal is put into boiling water to remove the fur. Next the abdomen is opened and the viscera are removed, and the cuy is stuffed with such spicy herbs as mint and marigold. A stick is run lengthwise through the body, and it is either broiled rotisserie fashion over a charcoal fire or cooked on hot stones in the indigenous manner. The meat is dark, rich, and savory, but several animals are needed to satisfy the appetite of a hungry man.[8]

In urban areas like Arequipa, Peru, few families raise their own guinea pig, and most partake in restaurants while celebrating a special occasion, such as a Sunday meal out with the family, birthdays, or other holidays. Arequipa is known for two different culinary styles: in cuy chactado, the animal is squished under stones and fried and in cuy al palo it is impaled and roasted.

For most of the twentieth century, nibbling on this rodent’s limbs communicated culinary preferences as well as social status: as both indigenous and poor. These stereotypes, however, are shifting. Susan DeFrance found in Moquegua, Peru, that upper class families widely consume cuyes, even preferring those with a rare genetic mutation causing six (versus five) toes on their feet).[9] And recent trade data indicates that U.S. commercial kitchens are importing more prepared, frozen guinea pigs than ever before. For American consumers they offer a cheaper alternative to beef
and a nostalgic nosh for Peruvians living stateside. Today, guinea pigs are one of many delicacies distinguishing Peruvian cuisine internationally.

Cuy Chactado

[1] Christina Zendt, “Marcos Zapata’s Last Supper: A Feast of European Religion and Andean Culture,” Gastronomica 10:4 (2010), 10.
[2] Christine Ann Hastorf, The Social Archaeology of Food: Thinking about eating from Prehistory to the Present. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 158.
[3] Daniel W. Gade, “The Guinea Pig in Andean Folk Culture,” Geographical Review 57:2 (1967): 221.
[4] Daniel W. Gade, “The Guinea Pig in Andean Folk Culture,” Geographical Review 57:2 (1967): 217. And Daniel H. Sandweiss and Elizabeth S. Wing, “Ritual Rodents: The Guinea Pigs of Chincha, Peru.” Journal of Field Archaeology 24:1 (1997): 50.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Bernabé Cobo: Hitoria del Nuevo Mundo (2 vols.; Madrid, 1956), Vol. 1: 360 in Daniel W. Gade, “The Guinea Pig in Andean Folk Culture,” Geographical Review 57:2 (1967): 217.
[7] Bernabé Cobo: Hitoria del Nuevo Mundo (2 vols.; Madrid, 1956), Vol. 1: 360 in Daniel W. Gade, “The Guinea Pig in Andean Folk Culture,” Geographical Review 57:2 (1967): 217.
[8] Daniel W. Gade, “The Guinea Pig in Andean Folk Culture,” Geographical Review 57:2 (1967): 223.
[9] Susan D. DeFrance, “The Sixth Toe: The Modern Culinary Role of the Guinea Pig in Southern Peru,” Food & Foodways, 1 (2006): 3-34.

Additional Resources

Archetti, Eduardo. Guinea Pigs: Food, Symbol and Conflict of Knowledge in Ecuador. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Morales, Edmundo. The Guinea Pig: Healing, Food and Ritual in the Andes. (Tucson, University of Arizona Press, 1995).

Dr. Kathleen Kole de Peralta is an assistant professor of environmental-health and Latin American history at Idaho State University.

 


OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Lisa Smith (March 19, 2019). Gastronomic and Medicinal Traditions of the Andean cuy in Peruvian Cuisine. The Recipes Project. Retrieved July 17, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/td6c


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.