By Deke Castleman
“It tastes like chicken” is such a common expression that it has almost become a self-fulfilling prophesy: Any uncommon meat is now compared to the bland standard of this particular poultry. Rabbit, quail, ostrich, goose, pigeon, ptarmigan, frog, turtle, alligator, snake, iguana, even kangaroo and the two-toed amphiuma (a type of salamander) have all been described as tasting like chicken.
What about cuy? Cuy is Spanish for guinea pig, believed to have been domesticated as early as 5,000 BCE by prehistoric tribes in the Andes, thus has been a regional source of animal protein for roughly 7,000 years. As is always the case with taste, the only way to find out is to eat the thing.
And that’s exactly what we — Greg Madeiros, Esthela Pilco, and myself — did the other night, at the place for cuy in Cuenca, Mi Escondite, located near Las Cuatro Esquinas de Ricaurte. (You pass the airport and take a left up the hill into Ricaurte. When you come to the traffic light, you go left onto the dirt road; the restaurant is perhaps 25 meters on the left. The #11 bus drops you off at Cuatro Esquinas.)
Mi Escondite (“My Hiding Place”) is deceptively large, with five separate rooms, one in the back big enough for a 20-person table and a few smaller ones. At the same time, the menu is purposely small. Other than cuy ($22), you can order grilled breast of chicken and lomo de cerdo (pork loin/cutlets), and Plato Cuencano (fritata, mote pillo, llapingacho, and avocado), each for $10. Saturdays and Sundays, they serve chicken al jugo (stew); a whole is $20, half $14, quarter $8; it comes with white rice and a house salad. Side dishes start at 75 cents for a soft-boiled egg, 75 cents for a llapingacho, and go up to $4.00 for yuca frita and a couple varieties of corn.
A full jarra (carafe) of limonada is $4, local beers are $2.75, Corona $4.00, bottled water, water, soda, and Gatorade, $1. But the Ecuadorian drink that’s traditional with cuy is sangoracha, made from the sangorache plant. Indigenous to the Andes, sangorache has furry reddish-purple leaves with white or black seeds related to amaranth. A tea is made from the stalks, then combined with sugar and aguadiente (sugar-cane alcohol). Sangoracha is red, always served hot, and it helps cut the grease of the cuy meat. Here, a whole jarra costs $12.
You’re greeted with a big bowl of popcorn and a small bowl of ají. The popcorn is bottomless; it helps fill the 30- to 45-minute gap between ordering and dinner being served. Depending on the size of the cuy, it takes 60 to 90 minutes to prepare; when you show up for your (mandatory) reservation, your cuy has ostensibly been spinning on the spit for a half-hour or so. Another stop-gap tradition is habas con queso, plates of queso fresco (medium-soft cheese) and habas (fava beans). They’re great eaten together and slathered with ají.
Finally, dinner arrives: papas hugosas (potatoes in sauce), mote blanco (big-kernel white corn, like hominy), and a half hard-boiled egg; the cuy asado comes on a separate plate, split into quarters. You eat the side dishes with a fork, but the cuy is always eaten with your hands.
Depending on the region, cuy can be served fried (chactado or frito), roasted (al horno), barbecued (pachamanca), or in a casserole, fricassee, or soup (locro de cuy). In Ecuador, it’s usually prepared broiled (asado), usually over a rotisserie with an oil or lard glaze, as at Mi Escondite.
The whole cuy is served. The head includes the tiny brain (though even Esthela, who loves cuy and has eaten it her entire life, can’t stomach el cerebro), the ears, and the eyes. You also come across the heart, liver, and lungs, which taste like turkey giblets. The little feet make convenient handles for holding the animal. The skin is crispy and crunchy.
Traditionally, cuy was reserved for ceremonies and important events, but since the 1960s, it’s become more commonplace. Still, it remains a social occasion, eaten at a restaurant with friends and/or family. A couple of people took out several bags while we ate, but Esthela shook her head and flicked her wrist in dismissal.Everyone agrees that it takes some effort to eat cuy, but that’s half the fun, and we reduced the rodent to a minor pile of little bones. The one cuy stuffed the three of us. We also had a jarra and a half of sangoracha, and queso y habas. With tip, the whole meal came to around $50.
After eating, it’s traditional (and necessary) to go to the washroom area: toilets for men and women and a nearby two-faucet sink. The Spanish word for the telltale smell is tufo (stink), and all the soaping and scrubbing in cold water doesn’t quite get it off, which makes it difficult to explain a night of cuy and sangoracha with the boys or girls to a waiting spouse.
They’re called “cuy” for the sound they make, high-pitched bird-like chirps: “cuy cuy.” The origin of the English name, guinea pig, is uncertain, since it doesn’t come from New Guinea and has nothing to do with pigs. “Guinea” might be a corruption of Guiana in South America. Or it could refer to the guinea coin, the price per when the Spanish brought them back to Europe, where it immediately became popular as a household pet. Queen Elizabeth I owned one, which may have contributed to its popularity as a pet.
So? Does it taste like chicken. Well, the meat is sweet, slightly smoky, and surprisingly greasy for such a little rodent, more similar to duck. In the end, it tastes — are you ready for this? –- exactly like cuy, meaning you simply have to eat it to know. And the best restaurant for that is Mi Escondite.
If you’re totally turned off by the idea of eating guinea pig, Escondite also serves excellent grilled chicken and beef. And the chicken tastes just like chicken.
In addition to the Mi Escondite in Ricaurte, there’s another one in Cuenca, at Juan José Flores 2-33 and Juan León Mera, five blocks east of the historic district.
Updated and reposted from October 2015.