What Does Guinea Pig Taste Like?
And the many ways to try guinea pig
“What does Guinea Pig taste like?” is one of the most frequently asked questions about Peruvian food. Personally, I think guinea pig tastes more like rabbit than chicken.
The consensus seems to be that cuy (Spanish word for Guinea pig) doesn’t taste incredibly different from chicken. However, to compare it to chicken is an oversimplification. Many say that guinea pig tastes somewhere in between duck and rabbit. The real answer is that it really depends on the style of preparation and your personal tastes.
Warning! The rest of the post contains several photos of guinea pig served as food throughout Peru. If you have a sentimental connection to guinea pig, you may want to switch to a different post like this one or this one.
Note: I’ll be referring to Guinea Pig as cuy for the remainder of this article since that’s how it normally appears on the menu in Peru.
Eating cuy is more than just a spectacle for tourists. It was a central part of ancient Incan culture. It was eaten by the nobility and offered as a sacrifice to the gods during religious rites. The entrails of cuy were used to divine the future. There’s even a depiction of the Last Supper that includes cuy as a central part of the festivities (you can see this painting for yourself at the cathedral in Cusco’s Plaza de Armas).
The rest of this post will be devoted to describing various preparations of cuy so that you can answer the question of “What does cuy taste like?” for yourself.
Different Ways to Try Cuy
Filet of cuy
Sometimes restaurants catering to tourists will serve pasta dishes with a “filet of cuy.” In my opinion, this is really only for the timid who simply want to mark “cuy” off the list. I would recommend going all in and trying one of the other preparations below.
Cuy Al Horno
Cuy Al Horno, cuy roasted in a clay oven, is perhaps the most common preparation. The cuy is served whole, from nose to tail. The intestines are removed and sometimes made into sausage. Cuy al horno is usually served with boiled potatoes and a side of salsa críolla.
In Cusco, the restaurants with aggressive touts that try to get you to look at the menu should be avoided. They spend all of their energy on marketing and very little energy on the food.
The best presentation that I’ve seen of cuy al horno is at Kusikuy1 in Cusco. The presentation style is undoubtedly geared toward tourists, but it strikes a great balance between presentation and ease of eating.
They bring you the cuy presented perfectly poised for a photo. Then, they take it back to the kitchen and carve it up to make it easier to eat.
Gaston Acurio famously prepared cuy in the style of Peking duck with crispy skin on the outside and tender meat on the inside, accompanying it with hoisin sauce. This legendary dish is still being offered at Astrid y Gaston.
Chifa San Joy Lao offers another delicious Chifa version of cuy—Chi Jau Cuy. The cuy is coated with chuño (potato flour) and then fried. It is accompanied by two contrasting sauces, an oyster sauce and a sweet-and-sour sauce.
In Cuy Al Palo, cuy is served on a stick, a giant stick. The cuy is first marinated in cumin and garlic, stuffed with Huacatay (black mint), skewered, and grilled over an open fire for approximately an hour. The cuy has to be rotated frequently to ensure that it is cooked evenly. The result is cuy with crispy skin and a smoky flavor. You also don’t need a plate or utensils to enjoy. Since this method doesn’t require an oven, it’s popular in the countryside and also at festivals.
There are many regional dishes centered around cuy. Here are some of my favorites:
Cuy Chactado is a local preparation from Arequipa and is my personal favorite. The cuy is butterflied so that it’s flat. Then it’s coated with flour and fried. In traditional picanterías, the cuy is submerged in hot oil with a stone which ensures that it fries evenly.
Picante de cuy is a dish in which the cuy is fried in pepper (ají) and served with boiled potatoes. In practice, when I’ve had it wasn’t that spicy. However, there are several versions of this dish—I’ve seen “cuy picante” ascribed to regions including Ayacucho, Cusco, and Junin.
Pepián de Cuy, Cajamarca’s signature dish, is a simple but delicious stew that consists of fried cuy flavored with a peanut sauce. It’s usually served with boiled potatoes, rice, and a small salad.
Tipón, the self-proclaimed “National Capital of Guinea Pig” is well-known for its cuy. There’s even a statue of a woman holding a platter of cuy that greets you as you arrive.
Honestly, I didn’t feel that Tipón in itself warranted a full day. The cuy I had there wasn’t that different than other cuy that I’ve had. However, there are other towns nearby, each specializing in a dish. For example, Oropesa is known for its Chuta bread while Saylla is known for its fried pork. Plus, there are plenty of archaeological sites nearby. Put a couple of these places together and you have yourself a good day trip from Cusco.
Finally, here are two more dishes served on special occasions that include cuy. They deserve their own posts, but I’ll discuss them in relationship to cuy:
Pachamanca (“earth pot” in Quechua) is an ancestral way of cooking a feast of meat and vegetables underground with the help of hot stones. Panchamancha includes a variety of meat which can include pork, lamb, beef, and you guessed it … cuy.
The cuy is usually stuffed with Huacatay (black mint) and slow-cooked in the earth for hours along with a medley of spices, vegetables, and other meat. The result is cuy that has a deep flavor. However, pachamanca is not just about the food. It’s an event that brings people together and fosters a connection with the land.
Chiriuchu is a festive dish from Cusco that brings together ingredients from all over Peru. It is an abundant dish containing cheese, jerky, chicken, fish eggs, seaweed, and baked Guinea pig among a litany of other ingredients. It is traditionally served during Corpus Christi in June but is available year-round in a small handful of touristic restaurants.
Cuy is an important ingredient for the Incas so it makes sense that it’s an ingredient in iconic dishes such as Pachamanca and Chiriuchu.
Entire Restaurants Dedicated to Cuy
I’ve had plenty of cuy at restaurants (and in homes around Peru), but I have yet to eat at a cuyería, a restaurant that specializes in cuy. You mostly find them in the Sierra, for example near Cusco. They offer multiple preparations of cuy under one roof. Most cuyerías will offer cuy al horno and cuy chactado in generous portions. Some will offer more creative preparations such as cuy kebabs.
This is the type of restaurant that locals go to eat cuy (when they aren’t preparing it at home). Thus, many of these restaurants will be a ways from the city center. However, you’ll be rewarded for the effort to get there with lower prices. Eating at a cuyería is on the top of my list for the next time I visit Cusco. As an aside, some of the YouTube commercials for cuyerías can be quite funny.
Cuy At Home
In tourist areas, Cuy is a much-fetishized and hyped-up ingredient, but in the Andes, it’s part of the way of life. It’s common for cuy to be raised at home and to be served on special occasions.
I stayed at a house where they raised cuy. Cuy is an amazingly efficient source of protein3. It was like watching the circle of life on fast-forward. We would feed them vegetable scraps like choclo (Andean corn) husks, and the next thing I knew, they were full-sized and ready for “harvest”.
New to Peruvian food?
A lot of content for this post came from my guidebook, How to Eat in Peru. If you are headed to Peru, consider buying a copy to inform your travels throughout Peru. I cover over fifty dishes and tell you where to try the best version of each dish. If you simply enjoy the stories on this blog, there are plenty more stories in the book.
The motivation behind this post was a question during my interview on the Nomadic Foodist podcast where I was asked what Guinea Pig tastes like. The goal of this post was to build on my answer from the podcast.
Check out my interview for the Nomadic Foodist podcast here. I cover how to try cuy for the first time, my opinion of a quintessential Lima food experience, and much more.
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Writing this is a labor of love. The article you just read is based on more than six years of research including three months working in restaurant kitchens in Cusco. To write this one article, I sifted through my notes from eating cuy over the years and culled photos from the ten thousand plus photos I have of Peruvian food.
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Kusikuy is “happiness” in Quechua and is likely a play on words since the cuy is their signature dish.
Speaking of Asian fusion, I have yet to try Nikkei cuy but that would be interesting. Also, I have an idea for a Thai preparation of cuy, but I have yet to try it out.
Many people also claim that cuy is much leaner than other meat and has many nutritional benefits.