Plate or Pass: Guinea pig
We know it's hard to envision eating animals that you grew up loving and caring for, but take a moment to consider the facts. Guinea pigs, or cuy, were domesticated by Andean tribes as early as 5000 BC specifically to be eaten. Because they're small and require less space and less feed, they are considered a low-impact protein source. Even Heifer International is promoting guinea pig husbandry in Peru, Ecuador, and Guatemala by providing families with guinea pigs to get their farms off the ground. Jason Woods, Heifer International's regional program assistant, told NPR that guinea pigs taking in the same amount of feed as cows can produce twice the amount of meat.
Not convinced? That's okay. Different cultures have different preferences, and guinea pig meat happens to be one of them. But after we sampled some for ourselves, we came around to the idea: Guinea pig is not only low-impact, high protein, and low fat -- it's also delicious.
Plate or Pass: Blood
"It's no different than eating chicken or rabbit -- it's just not what we're used to," says Tyge Nelos, the executive chef of Chino Latino. "You're not gonna have a cow up in the Andes Mountains. You eat what you've got."
Chino Latino is one of the only restaurants in the Twin Cities that offers cuy, but you have to order 72 hours in advance to give them enough time to purchase the frozen rodent from a local supplier. Nelson said Chino Latino used to get guinea pigs from Swanson Meats, but the company stopped selling them after the Ecuadorian Festival outbreak. Now they're purchased from One Stop on Chicago Avenue, where they're stacked amid a random array of frozen goods at the bottom of the store's freezer. If you want to find it, you'll have to do some digging. During our 72-hour wait, we made a trip to One Stop to grab ourselves a carcass and try our hand at guinea pig roasting.
One Stop's Ecuadorian cuy ain't cheap at $24 for a full guinea pig, but these are some freakishly big rodents. Apparently, guinea pigs were once naturally larger, but lost some of their bulk due to excessive inbreeding. Since then, scientists have developed bigger breeds, like the massive alien-like creature that sat in our fridge for two days.
Before cooking the creature, we decided to educate ourselves on guinea pig preparation with a YouTube video that showed the entire process. To kill a guinea pig, you hold it around its neck and break it by twisting or pulling it back. Next, the guinea pig is dipped into a pot of boiling water to loosen the fur, which is pulled off by hand. A slit is made in the stomach, the organs are pulled out, and the pig is put back in water to remove the blood. This is by no means a pleasant process, but slaughtering animals rarely is.
Cuy is typically fried, roasted, or grilled. It was -14 degrees outside and we were without a deep fryer, so we opted to roast the pig whole. We chopped up some potatoes, mushrooms, onions, and celery, seasoned the cuy, and set the vegetable-covered guinea pig in the oven for about an hour and a half. Since there was a two-inch slit in the pig's stomach, we assumed the organs had already been removed. Wrong. When we removed the cuy's bottom half, intestines plopped onto our cutting board, followed by a heart, kidneys, and Lord knows what else.
We moved the tiny organs to the side, chopped off the head, and began scraping as much meat as possible from the skin and bones. The full guinea pig yielded about a cup of meat. Compared to its initial size, it wasn't much, but the quantity was more than made up for in quality. If you can steer your mind away from thoughts of playing with your cuddly childhood pet, guinea pig meat is a succulent treat, similar to chicken but with grassy undertones. Like most things, guinea pig is especially delicious when dipped in barbecue sauce.
"It smells like when I used to go to Teppenyaki... it's like the general smell of all of that"
"It tastes like the really greasy part of pork."
"It's definitely moist."
"Definitely not offensive tasting."
"The stomach churning part is looking at the body."
The next night, we headed to Chino Latino for our cuy feast. Cuy is the only item on Chino's menu that's written solely in Spanish. Executive chef Nelson wasn't exactly sure sure why, but made an educated guess.
"Some of the clientele we have, I think it would scare the hell out of them," he said. "Like, really, they have a rodent on the menu?"
The $65 meal came with a full guinea pig, a salad, and enough rice and hominy to last a week. Chino Latino marinates the cuy in a mixture of garlic, oregano, and cumin and roasts it for 45 minutes to an hour. We're not sure what they did differently, but Chino's cuy was 10 times more moist and flavorful than ours. At some points, it tasted like tuna fish. At others, it was incredibly gamey. Within 10 minutes, the bones had been picked clean and everyone at our table considered themselves guinea pig converts.