A guinea pig for all tastes and seasons
Jul 15th 2004 | CAJAMARCA
From The Economist print edition
The birth of the mega cuy
THE first thing Fernando Escobal hears when he steps out of his small office at the National Agrarian Research Institute in Cajamarca in Peru's northern Andes is a chorus of chirps. The sound comes from thousands of guinea pigs held in mesh cages. They are destined not for pet shops but for the table. Mr Escobal hopes they will improve the diet of many of the poorest Peruvians.
The guinea pig, or cuy as it is known in Peru (from its chirping cries), is a delicacy throughout the central Andes. It was domesticated nearly 5,000 years ago. Ã¢ÂÂRaise guinea pigs and eat well,Ã¢ÂÂ enjoined an Inca saying. Spanish colonial paintings of the Last Supper in the cathedral in Cusco, the former Inca capital, and in Lima's San Francisco monastery portray Christ and his apostles feasting on a plate of roasted cuy. The rodent is still a fixture on Andean feast days. It is also used by traditional healers to diagnose illnesses. The animal is passed over a sick person, and then split open and examined for clues to the disease.
Peruvians already get through 22m guinea pigs a year. Mr Escobal and his team hope to persuade them that cuyes should not be kept for special occasions, but eaten far more regularly. To that end, they have developed some new breeds. On July 16th, they launched a new super-cuy, known as Peru, weighing up to three kilos (seven pounds).
According to the agriculture ministry, guinea-pig meat has more protein and less fat than chicken or pork, let alone red meats. Now, one cuy will easily feed a family of four. The new breed may also interest the discerning gourmet. Cuy tastes rather like rabbit. In Cajamarca, it is stewed; further south, it is split open, flattened and fried a crispy brown. The institute has drawn up a long list of other recipes. The main drawback of guinea pig is that it has rather a lot of small bones for not much flesh. Science may at last have changed that.