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

October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?


October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.


October 28 • 4:00 PM

The New Health App on Apple’s iOS 8 Is Literally Dangerous

Design isn’t neutral. Design is a picture of inequality, of systems of power, and domination both subtle and not. Apple should know that.


October 28 • 2:00 PM

And You Thought Your Credit Card Debt Was Bad

In Niagara County, New York, leaders took on 40-year debt to pay for short-term stuff, a case study in the perverse incentives tobacco bonds create.



October 28 • 10:00 AM

How Valuable Is It to Cure a Disease?

It depends on the disease—for some, breast cancer and AIDS for example, non-curative therapy that can extend life a little or a lot is considered invaluable. For hepatitis C, it seems that society and the insurance industry have decided that curative therapy simply costs too much.


October 28 • 8:00 AM

Can We Read Our Way Out of Sadness?

How books can help save lives.


Follow us


We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

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