The last time I said that word cuy – guinea pig in Spanish – was a few weeks ago in my aunt’s jeep in New Jersey. She was sharing a warm family story about how my grandmother turned her pet cuy, Julinho (named after the Brazilian soccer player who played for the Peruvian team Sporting Cristal), into dinner one evening. “I was so angry. HE WAS MY PET!,” my aunt yelled in Spanish. Everyone in the car knew it was the equivalent of having a pet chicken. My dad, being the typical older brother giggled– the Spanish jejeje –and continued driving while she yelled about the traumatizing day. I bit the inside of my lip to stop myself from laughing too. My grandmother always had an eye for the little morsel of meat, plumping up and living in her backyard. Unlike the United States, where second grade school teachers have nervous little guinea pigs named Chester as class pets, Peru isn’t the best place to raise a cuy to old age.
But eating cuy is a whole different story.
In the Andean highland regions of Peru – which recently celebrated its Día Nacional del Cuy on October 14 – as well as those of countries like Ecuador and Bolivia, the high-protein, low-fat guinea pig is considered a delicacy. Cuy has been a staple in the highland diet for approximately 5,000 years, but since the boom in Novoandino cuisine in the late 1980s, it’s also made its way onto the menus of fancy white-tablecloth restaurants in Lima. The roughly squirrel-sized rodents are typically split down the middle, flattened, and fried – a dish called cuy chactado – or roasted over a spit. The end result is a crackly bite that gives way to juicy, greasy meat, which is often described as tasting like something between rabbit and duck.
While the concept of eating guinea pig is still pretty foreign to most in the US, the tides seem to be changing. If you’re like my grandmother, who moved from la sierra (indigenous regions in the mountains) to Callao, the cuisine and custom moves with you. The influx of Andean immigrants into the US has caused a rise in frozen, hairless guinea pigs imported for dining purposes, running at about $12.99 a pound. According to NPR’s The Salt, one company in Connecticut doubled their imports from 600 guinea pigs per year to more than 1,000 from 2008 to 2013.
And it’s not just immigrants looking for a taste of home who are seeking out cuy. Activists have pointed out that guinea pigs and other small livestock are better for the environment than beef, which is tied to high carbon emissions and requires far more land to produce, so the rodents have reached the radars of environmentally conscious eaters. And then there are those who simply wish to be “adventurous” and try something out of the ordinary.
Today, you can find cuy at a handful of locations in NYC’s Queens borough, where the demand reportedly grows day by day. While many places I called seemed hesitant to confirm that they serve cuy – or told me they had discontinued it from their menus – others suggested that one need simply walk down Roosevelt Ave. in Queens to find it. Their skittishness may have to do with the lingering cultural prejudice in the US against eating rodents, but serving guinea pig is actually legal. Under federal law, it’s considered an exotic meat—also referred to as game or “non-amenable species”—and its sale is regulated by the FDA. Other meats that fall under this designation and that are frequently consumed are rabbit, bison, and venison.
Now, we just have to explain that to the Brooklyn resident who called 911 on an Ecuadorian man grilling cuy in Prospect Park, confusing it for a “mistreated” squirrel.
Below, check out some places where you can try cuy. Good luck!
Call in advance if you want to try cuy at the Peruvian restaurant in Jackson Heights.
8620 37th Ave, Jackson Heights, NY 11372
Cafe Con Leche
Cuy for sure served here.
102-03 Roosevelt Ave., Corona, NY 11368