The South American guinea pig, Cavia cobayo, has been domesticated in Peru for thousands of years. Archaeologists investigating Culebras, in the north of the country, found the remains of hundreds of the animals. Those ruins date from 2,500bc, and cuy housing was already part of the architecture, and by Inca times they were well established: excavations in Pisac have revealed cuy ‘cages’ beneath the classical niches of Inca buildings. Indians in the sierra still raise guinea pigs in much the same way, and they are one of the main sources of meat in the central Andes.
One explanation for their continuing popularity is that they are so easy to raise. Even city dwellers keep them, and every rural house has a horde of squeaking cuys – the name is onomatopoeic, since the animals seem to chirrup ‘cuy cuy cuy’ – scuttling around in the kitchen. Sometimes they are confined in cages or boxes, but they usually run free, making full use of the thoughtfully provided holes in adobe ‘furniture’. I once visited a house in a remote part of the Cordillera Blanca and questioned the householder about a row of tortoise shells ranged neatly by the wall. She lifted one up and out popped a guinea pig. A fiesta was starting the next day...
Like all rodents, the animals are prolific breeders: litters of three or four are born every three months. Adults usually weigh about 1kg (2lb) – not much meat considering the time taken to prepare them.
In Cusco Cathedral (and in the cathedral of Ayacucho) there is a 17th-century painting of the Last Supper. The scene is traditional, but the main dish is startlingly different: as befits a meal of importance in Peru, Christ and his disciples are about to dine on guinea pig. The domestication of the native guinea pig as a source of meat for special occasions would have been noted by the priests and Spanish artists who set out to save the souls of the Inca heathens by using images they could relate to.
The method of cooking cuy varies by region. Generally, they are grilled whole over charcoal after the skin has been rubbed with herbs and garlic (an important step, since the skin is the tastiest part). In Arequipa fried cuy (chactado) is popular: deep oil is used and the cuy covered by a smooth river stone to flatten it during cooking so that it resembles Peking duck. Sometimes cuy al horno (baked guinea pig) is offered in the Cusco area, and in other mountain villages it may be casseroled in green (herb) or red (chilli and peanut) sauce.
While gringos fastidiously nibble at the scant meat on slender bones, locals crunch their way happily through head, brains and paws. One bone is carefully preserved, however: the zorro, a tiny bone from the middle ear said to resemble a fox. This is used for gambling. Wagers may be placed on the number of zorros collected in a given time, or the bone is placed in a glass of beer and the drinker challenged to swallow it with the beer (surprisingly difficult, because it tends to stick to the bottom of the glass).
Foreigners more used to seeing guinea pigs as cherished pets than culinary ingredients will be relieved to hear that the former role is not completely denied them in the Andes. A Peruvian friend told me his younger brothers and sisters refused to allow their pets to be dished up to an uncle in honour of his visit. It was three years before the uncle would speak to his family after this insult!
As well as being a delicacy, guinea pigs play an important part in Indian rituals to ensure health and good fortune. Recent findings suggest that the animals were sacrificed in Inca times, and no doubt the jubeo ceremony, still practised by curanderas (native healers), goes back thousands of years. If a person falls seriously ill in rural Peru, his or her family is as likely to call in a curandera or, more specifically, a jubeadora as a doctor, even though the former may be more expensive.
To diagnose and cure the patient, a black guinea pig is required, and these animals cost three times as much as those of other less potent colours. The jubeadora must also be paid and, since her powers are increased by good food, she is feasted as well. Her job is considered a risky one – she may catch the patient’s disease or, more obliquely, her ‘destiny may change’, so she can command a high price.
The relatives of the patient ensure that this money is well spent by scrupulous attention to the details of jubeo. The ceremony should take place on a Tuesday or Friday (although in an emergency any day of the week will do). A black guinea pig of the same sex and equivalent age to the patient is selected, and a candle burns by the sick person, along with aromatic herbs. The jubeo begins at midnight, but preparations involving coca chewing and the consumption of aguadiente (a regional alcoholic beverage) begin well before that hour. At midnight the jubeadora picks up the guinea pig and, filling her mouth with aguadiente, blows the alcohol over the animal’s belly, face, nose and ears. After a prayer and the sign of the cross, the guinea pig is held firmly by its fore and back legs, belly well exposed, and systematically passed over all parts of the patient’s body, beginning with the chest. As the animal takes on the symptoms of the sick person, it struggles violently and – so they say – dies. (If it doesn’t die the patient’s illness is not considered to be serious.) Relieved of his symptoms the patient is well on the road to recovery, but diagnosis is still necessary before herbal remedies can complete the cure. The dead cuy is carried into the next room wrapped in a black cloth; and after further coca chewing, helped along with shots of aguadiente, it is opened up and its organs examined. An enlarged heart shows that the patient was suffering from a cardiac problem, an inflamed liver points to hepatitis, and so on. The animal may even be skinned so that the muscles and joints can be examined. Mission accomplished, the jubeadora is further fortified with food and drink, collects her fee, and goes on her way.
Finally, the versatile guinea pig is used, in rural villages, in a novel form of roulette. A circle is made with upended cardboard boxes with holes cut in the sides and a number painted on the top. Onlookers buy numbered tickets and a guinea pig is released into the middle of the circle. It scurries into one of the boxes and the holder of the corresponding ticket wins a prize!