We arrived in Quito as scheduled, mid-morning on Tuesday. We took it easy our first day – eating, napping, and acclimating to the high altitude here. Yesterday we spent the day with a private guide and driver exploring local crafts markets and offerings in Otavalo as well as using my camera’s GPS to get us to the exact equator – 0 degrees latitude. Krystyana should be writing all that up in the next day or so, so let me focus on today’s activities, which started with a visit to the Museo Nacional de Banco Central del Ecuador where we learned about how man first came to Ecuador many thousands of years and how culture evolved here until Ecuador’s independence from Spain in 1822. Very interesting museum and well worth the three or so hours we spent there.
But the most unusual thing I did today (with Linda and Krystyana trying a nibble) was to dine on Guinea pig.
Warning: If you’re squeamish about eating unusual foods and creatures, especially cute and cuddly ones, please stop reading here, and especially don’t look at any of the pictures below.
Guinea Pigs in Ecuadoran Cuisine
Guinea pigs, in the time before beef cattle were introduced to the country, were the main staple meat among Ecuadoran indigenous peoples. However, beef, pork, and other meats did not completely displace Guinea pigs from the Ecuadoran diet, and “cuy” (as Guinea pigs are known in Ecuador) are still a widely eaten delicacy. It is claimed that they are very low in cholesterol – I have no way to confirm or deny that, but based on all I’ve been reading of late, high cholesterol foods don’t actually appreciably affect the cholesterol that clogs one’s arteries (blame sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup for that).
In terms of preparation, from what I’ve read, Guinea pigs used to be grilled on spits over open fires, but nowadays are either cooked on a rotisserie or deep fried. Below, for example, is a photo of a rotisserie with several Guinea pigs being cooked, found on our travels out to Otavalo yesterday.
We always try to sample local cuisine, and one of our missions in Ecuador and Peru was to try Guinea pig – all but Bas because he just cannot get himself to eat anything he deems to be cute and lap or hand-sized. Bas’ criteria for cuteness encompasses rabbit, ducks (but not chickens), and, of course, Guinea pigs. And, honestly, Linda and Krystyana weren’t too wild about the idea either. Okay, so it was really just me that wanted to try and eat this traditional meat.
Our guide for Otavalo, Luisa, recommended a place in Quito called Mama Clorinda’s as the place to have traditional Ecuadoran food, so after our museum visit this morning we made our way there – about a 15 minute walk from our hotel. Mama Clorinda’s was a tiny restaurant with low ceilings (ouch) and about a dozen tables, with lots of locals dining there. As we reviewed the menu we were serenaded by two musicians playing Ecuadoran music. We liked the music, but didn’t appreciate the fact that the musicians were next to our table – it made it too loud for us to talk. Had they been outside the restaurant it would have been more pleasant.
In any event, we finally ordered our meals, with Bas positioning himself in such a way that he would not be able to see my meal when it arrived. He ordered fried chicken with baked beans, and Linda and Krystyana ordered deep fried pork chunks known as “fritados”. I ordered a whole Guinea pig, but unlike the menu description shown above, I asked for mine to be fried without breading. After all, other than the non-low-carbness of breaded Guinea pig, it’s highly unlikely that Guinea pig was breaded back in the days before cattle – and I wanted as authentic an experience as possible.
When my Guinea pig finally arrived, it was not whole as I had expected. Instead the kitchen had split it into six parts: the head in two parts with the lower jaw separated from the upper jaw and skull, and the body cut into four pieces as seen in the photos below.
The teeth on the jaws were still clearly visible, and if I studied the skull enough I could see where the eyes were (or used to be) and also see the ears sticking up. Each of the four body parts featured a small, crispy paw.
My commentary about the meal on my plate were not being well received by Bas, so I stopped my dialog and instead focused on trying the meat. I tried to use a knife and fork, but the Guinea pig parts were just too small for normal utensils so I had to resort to using my fingers. Peeling back the crunchy skin I found the color of the cooked meat was very similar to the dark meat of a chicken or a rabbit, and not surprisingly, very similar in taste. I found the meat to be quite salty, but that may have been the preparation more that the taste of the meat itself as all of the meats we were served were saltier than they should have been.
The fried Guinea pig skin was tasty and fatty, but not as crunchy as it first seemed – instead it was a bit chewy. The other thing I discovered was that Guinea pigs are quite bony, and not particularly meaty. The rump of the Guinea pig had noticeably more meat than the front half, and while I joked with Krystyana that the one benefit of Guinea pig over chicken was that the former had four drumsticks, there really wasn’t that much meat there. I suspect I burnt nearly as much energy picking bits of meat off the carcass as I consumed in the skin and meat that I managed to find to eat.
All in all it was an interesting experience, but probably not one I care to repeat as I prefer bigger pieces of meat which require less work to separate from the bone. And for those who were wondering, Krystyana and Linda did each try a small piece of Guinea pig, but only while Bas averted his gaze. Linda thought it tasted like dark meat from a chicken, while Krystyana was convinced it was more like rabbit.
While I did manage to strip the body of meat and edible skin, I was not able to get myself to search for any morsels of meat that might have been in the lower jaw or skull of the Guinea pig. I hope I did not miss out on anything fantastic, but instinct tells me my decision was a prudent one.
In terms of Mama Clorinda’s itself, we found the service a bit spotty, and the other meats overcooked. We would seek other places for Ecuadoran cuisine if we had the desire to eat typical local food.