Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


guinea-pig-meal

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)

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

November 24 • 8:00 AM

Why Do We Elect Corrupt Politicians?

Voters, it seems, are willing to forgive—over and over again—dishonest yet beloved politicians if they think the job is still getting done.



November 24 • 6:00 AM

They Steal Babies, Don’t They?

Ethiopia, the Hague, and the rise and fall of international adoption. An exclusive investigation of internal U.S. State Department documents describing how humanitarian adoptions metastasized into a mini-industry shot through with fraud, becoming a source of income for unscrupulous orphanages, government officials, and shady operators—and was then reined back in through diplomacy, regulation, and a brand-new federal law.


November 24 • 4:00 AM

Nudging Drivers, and Pedestrians, Into Better Behavior

Daniel Pink’s new series, Crowd Control, premieres tonight on the National Geographic Channel.


November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


November 21 • 9:12 AM

‘Shirtstorm’ and Sexism in Science

Following the recent T-shirt controversy, it’s clear that sexism in science persists. But the forces driving the gender gap are still being debated.


November 21 • 8:00 AM

What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.



November 21 • 6:00 AM

What Makes a City Unhappy?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dana McMahan splits time between two of the country’s unhappiest cities. She set out to explore the causes of the happiness deficits.


November 21 • 5:04 AM

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends’ perceptions suggest they know something’s off with their pals but like them just the same.


November 21 • 4:00 AM

In 2001 Study, Black Celebrities Judged Harshly in Rape Cases

When accused of rape, black celebrities were viewed more negatively than non-celebrities. The opposite was true of whites.


November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.


November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.


November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.


November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.


November 20 • 8:00 AM

Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction

As a young girl, Alana Levinson struggled with the shame of her father’s substance abuse. But when she looked more deeply into the research on children of drug-addicted parents, she realized society’s “conspiracy of silence” was keeping her—and possibly millions of others—from adequately dealing with the experience.



November 20 • 6:00 AM

Extreme Weather, Caused by Climate Change, Is Here. Can Nike Prepare You?

Following the approach we often see from companies marketing products before big storms, Nike focuses on climate change science in the promotion of its latest line of base-layer apparel. Is it a sign that more Americans are taking climate change seriously? Don’t get your hopes up.


November 20 • 5:00 AM

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn’t vanish as we age—it just moves.


November 20 • 4:00 AM

The FBI’s Dangerous Misrepresentation of Encryption Law

The FBI no more deserves a direct line to your data than it deserves to intercept your mail at the post office. But it doesn’t want you to know that.


November 20 • 2:00 AM

Brain Drain Is Economic Development

It may be hard to see unless you shift your focus from places to people, but both destination and source can benefit from “brain drain.”


Follow us


Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

Online Brain Exercises Are Probably Useless

Even under the guidance of a specialist trainer, computer-based brain exercises have only modest benefits, a new analysis shows.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

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