Traditional Andean Cuisine: Guinea Pig

Known as cuy, these animals are protein, not pets

Fried cuy
gustavo ramirez / Getty Images

As you might have guessed, guinea pigs are not beloved pets in Peru. Instead, they are a traditional and important source of protein in the Andes, where they are known as cuy (pronounced coo-ee), named after the sound the animal makes. Guinea pig meat was an important part of the pre-colonial diet in Peru, way before the European colonizers introduced chicken, pigs, and cows to South America, and it has continued as a tradition. 

Steeped in Tradition

Eating cuy is such a tradition, in fact (an estimated 65 million guinea pigs are consumed annually in Peru), that there are festivals celebrating the humble beast, with contests for the best dressed, largest and of course best-tasting guinea pig. Peruvians even declared a national holiday every second Friday in October to celebrate the guinea pig. 

A mating pair of guinea pigs are often given to children, newlyweds, and guests as gifts and the animals are kept in the same way chickens are raised at home, versus kept as pets.

History and Culture

Considered a delicacy for over 5,000 years, cuy has been a part of Andean cuisine for a very long time. It was enjoyed by the ancient Incan nobility, and used for telling fortunes and as a sacrifice. A famous religious painting in the cathedral in Cusco (southeastern Peru) shows Jesus and his disciples sharing a big platter of cuy. There is even a betting game (tómbola de cuy) that is played where guinea pigs are released into a circular area with several numbered boxes; players bet on which numbered box the guinea pig will enter. The person who chose the correct number is the winner.

Preparation to Eat 

Cuy has a similar taste to a rabbit or wildfowl. It is typically served whole, either fried, roasted or grilled, with rice, potatoes, corn and hot sauce on the side. A flattened fried cuy is called "cuy chactado," and most visitors who sample cuy seem to prefer the fried version. But if eating guinea pig is definitely not your thing, there are many other traditional Andean foods and dishes to try, such as chupe de maní (peanut and potato soup), humitas (fresh corn tamales), quinoa and kiwicha (an edible flowering plant) and of course a huge variety of potatoes.