Managing to travel in three distinct regions of Ecuador without sampling its most elusive food, Diane and I began salivating as our van approached the outskirts of Cuenca, one of the most popular expat havens in South America. Having completed the recreational parts of our annual Expat Destination Research Vacation with stops in the Amazonian rainforest and fresh off five days cruising the Galapagos Islands, we enjoyed delicious food but the locals simply smirked when we asked for bar-b-q Guinea Pig. Commonly known as “Cuy”, guinea pig is only enjoyed in the Andes Mountains Highlands where swaths of indigenous Ecuadorians live. Promising us a taste from the first day, our guide Byron pulled into a small food stand about five miles from the center of town and sat down with us for a real life version of Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods.
Ironically, I searched high and wide all over the websites of International Living, Barrons, Forbes and other organizations that praise Cuenca’s reputation but couldn’t find even a short blurb mentioning cuy. Apparently, the locals had either been paid off or told by the wealthier folks in town to prohibit photography that might discourage potential Westerners from settling there by grossing them out with pictures of grilled pets. One woman was so upset when we tried to snap a photo that she threw rocks at Byron and we had to move on and find another stand. Fortunately, our resourceful guide knew a stand run by a friend where we eventually settled in for lunch and grabbed some pictures.
Most Ecuadorians treat cuy as peasant food, even occasionally harboring shame so it’s understandable why the crew of the Ocean Spray luxury catamaran laughed at us when we inquired about its presence on their menu. Examining its roots, however, we understood the food as an economic necessity for a poor population. Requiring much less room than traditional livestock and pigs and roaming abundantly throughout the mountain regions, guinea pigs reproduce quickly and are easily raised in an urban environment.
Like other small animals, guinea pig meat is high in protein, low in fat and cholesterol and usually described as tasting like the dark meat of chicken or rabbits. Having never eaten rabbit met before, I can’t confirm or deny the the rabbit part, but the meat did look like quail or pheasant. Originally reserved for ceremonial meals, it began to be acceptable for consumption by all people in the 1960’s and today it’s eaten in mountainous regions of Peru and Bolivia as well as Ecuador. Urban and rural families often raise guinea pigs for supplemental income, selling them at local fairs and large-scale markets.
Served fried, broiled or roasted, guinea pig may also be served in restaurants as a casserole or fricassee although we received nasty looks from owners of chic restaurants in Cuenca’s old town when we asked about the dish. Unclear why it seems so shameful and hidden, it’s apparent that city leaders understand the economics of landing middle class North American expats who don’t want to move to an area considered primitive or otherwise populated by peasants. Diane and i found this ironic and quickly learned the social disconnect between locals and expats in this part of Ecuador.
Strangely deserted on weekends, some restaurants in the Old Town even close on Saturday and Sunday because the staff won’t work. Often leaving town on Friday for the economically depressed villages that skirt the town where many of their families live, the old town seemed mostly left for the expats . Diane and I think this is too bad because some of the best food is always found in local stands just outside the main areas of the city and that’s why we insisted on bar-b-q guinea pig for lunch. Here’s a short video of the cuy cooking over an open fire
Unsure what the difference was between the menu choices, we let Byron order and five minutes later we sat down and enjoyed our first taste of cuy.
Honestly, I don’t see what the big deal is but then again I don’t understand why most Americans think the entire planet revolves around processed shit disguised as food making America the most obese bunch of humans on the planet. Tasting kind of like dark game meat or quail, it neither impressed or revolted me and I’m happy I added it to my list of bizarre foods. Oddly enough it’s not even the grossest thing I’ve ever eaten. Qualifying as even stranger in my book and readily available right here in the USA, developing duck embryo, otherwise known as Balut, is more bizarre. Filipinos eat this gross stuff and when you live in The Bay Area, odds are you’ll have a Filipino co-worker who’ll convince you to try it. Here’s a picture if you haven’t had the honor of trying it.
By now this post may have convinced some would-be expats to Ecuador that Cuenca is a bad choice, gastronomically speaking. Actually, nothing is further from the truth. After sampling the strangest food, Diane and I spent the rest of the trip enjoying delicious meals including a large variety of pork, fish, soups, prime cuts of meat, well cooked pastas and desserts but we drew the line at Chinese food. Located almost everywhere on Earth, Chinese restaurants are about as common as flies on a horse so we chose to wait until the move to Southeast Asia and opted out of “Chifa”. But it’s nice to know you can get your egg roll fix in Ecuador.
Grading food in Ecuador is relatively easy as it’s fresh, tasty and inexpensive. Still a distant fourth behind Thailand and Costa Rica, however, Cuenca was not a place Diane and I would ever feel comfortable choosing as an expat destination. With 120 days left until we file our MM2H Visa paperwork for residency in Malaysia, we have more tales of expat exploration to share before the move including our impressions of Cuenca, why we didn’t really understand Singapore and how tourist agencies lie when they tell you there’s “no hot season” in Aruba during a 95 degree humid spell. Stay tuned and happy holidays !!
What’s the most bizarre food you’ve eaten? Please share your stories !!