Dispatch, Lima: Eating a guinea pig

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 Arnie Weissmann, Travel Weekly's editor in chief, was in Peru with Tourism Cares. A dispatch follows.

A painting of The Last Supper inspired me to eat a guinea pig, and so I did.

The painting hangs in the Monasterio de San Francisco in Lima. I did not go there to see the painting; I went there to see hundreds of human bones and skulls.

Perhaps I should back up for a moment.

I’m in Peru with Tourism Cares on its first Global Outreach program (I am on the board of Tourism Cares), and although the first official gathering wasn’t taking place until 6:30 p.m. on the day I arrived, my flight landed at 4:15 a.m., and so I had some time to kill.

So to speak.

While looking into what to do during my free day in Lima, I read that Monasterio de San Francisco’s catacombs contained hundreds of bones and skulls.

At the risk of sounding morbid, I am interested in devotional funerary monuments — they’re among the most interesting forms of folk art to me — and I thought this might fit into that category.

As it turns out, the catacombs were not terribly interesting. The bones had been stacked neatly in open graves — femurs in one, humerus in another, on and on.

In one spot, the archaeologist who discovered this trove in the 1940s was inspired to arrange skulls and femurs in a geometric design, but I thought it felt ghoulish and disrespectful and impersonal rather something inspired by love, loss or faith.

The monastery was in other respects beautiful, and in its cloisters was a 17th century painting of The Last Supper. It was like no other I have seen. Rather than a long table, the apostles sat at a round table. Happy children filled the room. A devil stands right behind Judas.

And in the center of the table, on a platter, sits the main course: cuy.

Cuy is guinea pig, a national dish in Peru. “It tastes like chicken, but with something extra,” the guide said.

I had not yet had lunch, and decided to give it a try.

I’ll mention that I am a seafood- and fish-eating vegetarian, but only for 363 out of 365 days of the year.

About twice a year, I’ll be traveling and will see something on a menu that I’ve never seen before, and my curiosity will get the better of me. Last time it was in Bhutan, where I was offered an unusual preparation of liver.

So it would be cuy for lunch. Just off the main square in central Lima, I saw a restaurant called “Peru Gourmet” which looked promising, and sure enough, “Cuy Chactado en Salsas Andinas” was written on the chalkboard at the entrance.

There was a photo on the menu, showing what appeared to be a deep-fried animal, its arms and legs sticking straight out to the side, surrounded by sliced potatoes and slivers of red peppers.

My waiter, Enrique, came to take my order.

I told him I wanted cuy.

“Do you want, maybe, just a taste, or the whole thing?” he asked, very concerned.

Apparently, things must have gone badly for some tourist who had previously ordered an entire cuy.

“The whole thing,” I said.

“Do you know what it looks like?” he asked.

I put my arms straight out and held my neck rigid.

“Yes,” he said.

When it arrived, it looked just like the photo on the menu, with the body cut in quadrants and the head separated. I cut into the upper left portion.

Milder than chicken, but more oily and with a bit of visible fat. And yes, with “something extra,” but I’m afraid I don’t have the vocabulary to describe that particular taste.

I made my way through the better part of three quarters of the beast, not particularly enjoying it. It was a lot of work for not much meat, and I didn’t really care for the “something extra.”

The waiter had placed the dish down so that the head was facing away from me. I turned the plate 180 degrees.

This guinea pig looked angry. And much more rat-like than I had assumed it would.

I turned the plate back to its original position and asked for the menu again. I looked for something else typically Peruvian that might help me forget that angry face.

I studied it for the better part of a minute.

“Pisco sour,” I told Enrique, handing him back the menu. “A large one.”

Follow Arnie Weissmann on Twitter @awtravelweekly. 

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