Menus Subscribe Search
guinea-pig-meal

Guinea Pigs, an Adorable—and Tasty—Dinner Companion

• April 08, 2013 • 5:00 PM

Whether grilled or deep fried, guinea pig is usually served whole in the Andes, where the rodents are a popular source of protein. (PHOTO: ALEX ROBBINS/FLICKR)

A delicacy in the Andes is making its way to the United States in ever-growing numbers.

Feeling a little peckish but don’t want a lot? How about some animal protein already packaged in (American) snack size? According to NPR, more people are eating guinea pigs, previously best known on these shores for being, well, guinea pigs in the nation’s laboratories (and for not being hamsters). And unlike the Western world’s unwitting horse eaters, at least the guinea pigs are instantly recognizable as such since they’re usually served whole, from two-tooth death rictus to meaty rump.

Having been sensitized by the writing of Jack Shafer over the years, I wondered how real this trend toward eating something most people bring home from the pet store, and not the butcher, might be. NPR’s Alastair Bland didn’t exactly answer that question, but did show his work in trying—and failing—to get a quantitative answer to back up the premise. His anecdotal information–one importer brings in a thousand of the animals a year compared to 600 a while ago—does indicate growth fueled by South American expats and adventurous gastronauts, but no fear of a Guinea McNuggets future.

Cuy at Otovalo market

Otovalo’s Saturday animal market includes pens of guinea pigs, or cuy, among the critters for sale. (PHOTO: DRRISS/FLICKR)

Dining on guinea pigs isn’t a recent backlash against Cute Overload. In the Andes Mountains, where the miniature livestock are known as cuy, guinea pig is a delicacy, medical device, and even hard (if cuddly) currency. Visit an animal market in some mountain town—I particularly recall the well-known Otovalo market in Ecuador—and among the various large animals and chickens will be baskets and pens of live guinea pigs. Purchasers usually aren’t bringing a few home for tonight’s dinner, but to stock up a kitchen larder where the critters are often allowed to run free (and perhaps create a new generation of meals). And yes, to my eyes they were just as adorable as any guinea pigs raised for play instead of the plate.

Andeans have been eating guinea pigs for thousands of years, so long that there are no longer undomesticated members of the species Cavia porcellus around, although (apparently much smarter) wild cousins like the Brazilian guinea pig and wild cavy do exist in unthreatened abundance. The proto-guinea pig was thought to be larger and meatier—not capybara size, to name another tasty South American rodent—but several-pounds-of-meat size. So while millennia of inbreeding have probably seen the species shrink, modern breeding is re-inflating the cuy.

Over the years, there have been a number of husbandry efforts to prepare the world for fricasseed guinea pig, whether as fresh-frozen exports from South America or as a transplanted and sustainable livestock in protein-poor areas like sub-Saharan Africa. Researchers at Peru’s Agrarian University of La Molina have been working for decades to breed a market-friendlier cuy. A few years ago, having finally created a “super guinea pig” for export, they set sights on the States and other non-traditional markets. Perhaps the fruit of those efforts helps explain NPR’s findings.

Most recent scientific work looking at guinea pigs and diet mostly concerns what the animals eat (as a proxy for humans), and not having them eaten (by those same humans), but research from the 1980s finds guinea pig is good for you, with more protein and less fat than flesh from pigs, cows, sheep, or chickens. Guinea pig is also good for Mother Earth—you don’t need a Ponderosa-sized spread to raise them, and they convert their feed into edible protein twice as efficiently as a cow. Still, people usually pick meals based on taste, not statistics.

Gloria Palacios, the project director of cuy exports at La Molina U., told CBS three years ago:

It is well known that Peruvians eat guinea pig. Foreigners are more reluctant to eat it as they see the animal as a pet. I think if they become familiar with the cuisine, maybe suddenly they’ll give in and be tempted to try it. It is really delicious.

“Delicious” is, of course, in the mouth of the beholder. I had restaurant- (as opposed to home-) cooked cuy in Ecuador a few years ago and thought, “Meh!” My deep-fried meal was, as I opined at the time, edible if laborious, not something I’d seek out a second time any more than the other friends of Bambi I’d had on a lark, such as rabbit or squirrel.

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

More From Michael Todd

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts


July 21 • 4:00 PM

Do You Have to Learn How to Get High?

All drugs are socially constructed.


July 21 • 2:14 PM

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.


July 21 • 2:00 PM

Why Are Obstetricians Among the Top Billers for Group Psychotherapy in Illinois?

Illinois leads the country in group psychotherapy sessions in Medicare, and some top billers aren’t mental health specialists. The state’s Medicaid program has cracked down, but federal officials have not.



July 21 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, MacArthur Genius?

Noah Davis talks to Yoky Matsuoka about youth tennis, wanting to be an airhead, and what it’s like to win a Genius Grant.


July 21 • 11:23 AM

People Are Clueless About Placebos

Doctors know that sometimes the best medicine is no medicine at all. But how do patients feel about getting duped into recovery?


July 21 • 10:00 AM

How Small-D Democratic Should Our Political Parties Be?

We need to decide how primaries should work in this country before they get completely out of hand and the voters are left out entirely.


July 21 • 8:00 AM

No, Walking on All 4 Limbs Is Not a Sign of Human ‘Devolution’

New quantitative analysis reveals that people with Uner Tan Syndrome don’t actually walk like primates at all.


July 21 • 6:00 AM

Sequenced in the U.S.A.: A Desperate Town Hands Over Its DNA

The new American economy in three tablespoons of blood, a Walmart gift card, and a former mill town’s DNA.


July 21 • 5:00 AM

Celebrating Independence: Scenes From 59 Days Around the World

While national identities are often used to separate people, a husband-and-wife Facebook photography project aims to build connections.


July 21 • 4:00 AM

Be a Better Person: Take a Walk in the Park

New research from France finds strangers are more helpful if they’ve just strolled through a natural environment.



July 18 • 4:00 PM

The Litany of Problems With the Pentagon’s Effort to Recover MIAs

A draft inspector general report found that the mission lacks basic metrics for how to do the job—and when to end it.


July 18 • 2:00 PM

Sure, the Jobs Are Back, but We Need a Lot More

We’re back to where we were before the 2008 recession, but there are now 12 million more people in the United States.


July 18 • 12:00 PM

What Are the Benefits of Government-Funded Research?

Congress wants to know.


July 18 • 10:31 AM

Why Didn’t California’s Handheld Phone Ban Reduce Motor Accidents?

Are handheld cell phones as dangerous as they have been made out to be?


July 18 • 10:00 AM

The Upside of Economic Downturns: Better Childhood Health

For children, the benefits of being born in tough times can outweigh the costs.


July 18 • 9:48 AM

What Tech Talent Shortage? Microsoft Trims 18,000 Employees From Payroll

Like manufacturing before it, the Innovation Economy has reached a turning point, with jobs moving to places where labor is cheaper.


July 18 • 8:00 AM

The Academic of Comic Books

Kim O’Connor talks to Hillary Chute about comics as objects of criticism, the role of female cartoonists, and the art world’s evolving relationship with the form.


July 18 • 6:00 AM

The Supreme Court’s ‘Hobby Lobby’ Ruling Isn’t a Women’s Health Issue

It’s a private health issue. And it affects us all.


July 18 • 4:00 AM

‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ Comes Easier to the Danes

New research finds the closer a nation is to the genetic make-up of Denmark, the happier its citizens are.


July 17 • 4:00 PM

A Way for Feminism to Overcome Its ‘Class Problem’

A growing body of research indicates that there are few other interventions that improve the economic prospects and work-life balance of women workers as much as unions do.


July 17 • 2:00 PM

How a Fanny Pack Mix-Up Unraveled a Massive Medicare Fraud Scheme

Two secretaries in a doctor’s office have pleaded guilty and a pharmacy owner faces charges in a scam that Medicare allowed to thrive for more than two years.


July 17 • 12:00 PM

‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ Makes a Great Argument for Sex

We could all learn a thing or two from our close cousin, the bonobo.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.

People Are Clueless About Placebos

Doctors know that sometimes the best medicine is no medicine at all. But how do patients feel about getting duped into recovery?

No, Walking on All 4 Limbs Is Not a Sign of Human ‘Devolution’

New quantitative analysis reveals that people with Uner Tan Syndrome don't actually walk like primates at all.

Why Didn’t California’s Handheld Phone Ban Reduce Motor Accidents?

Are handheld cell phones as dangerous as they have been made out to be?

The Upside of Economic Downturns: Better Childhood Health

For children, the benefits of being born in tough times can outweigh the costs.

The Big One

Today, the United States produces less than two percent of the clothing purchased by Americans. In 1990, it produced nearly 50 percent. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.