This chapter was cut for size from The Great Global Bucket List print edition. My editor and I decided it might not be, well, to everyone’s taste!
Across Ecuador’s four wholly distinct eco-systems, there are more animals and plants per square kilometre than anywhere else. It contains the world’s second largest number of endemic vertebrates, third largest number of amphibians, fourth for birds, fifth for butterflies. It has 10% percent of all vertebrate animals on the planet, all hiding in just 0.19% of the earth’s surface. Among them is the guinea pig, a furry little critter that has better reason to hide than, say, the striped hog-nosed skunk. For along with colonial Spanish towns, beach towns, mountain shamans and the bustle of Quito, Ecuadoreans have developed a fond taste for deep-fried guinea pig.
Guinea pigs, it should be noted, are neither from Guinea, nor a pig. It is a domesticated rodent that originates from the Andes, and has long been cultivated as a food source. Europeans brought them back as pets as early as the sixteenth century, and that’s when creatures known locally as cavy, cuy or cuyo took on the moniker of guinea pigs. Pigs, because someone at some point thought they looked like one, and Guinea, because in those days, any exotic creature in Europe simply had to come from the land of Guinea – as exotic a place as medieval idiots could imagine. At least that is one theory. Nobody truly knows why the rodent got its unusual name, but we do know they are effective as human substitutes in medical trials, and look much like a deep-fried rat when served with salad in the town of Cotachi.
Fried cuy remains a treat in Ecuador, enjoyed much like a Thanksgiving Day turkey, on special occasions, and at great expense. The furry entrée sometimes shares its abode with local villagers, who fatten them up for upcoming celebrations. In the village of Quiroga, I pop into a dark shack occupied by three old ladies with toothy grins and a hotel laundry of face wrinkles. Scurrying about are foot-length guinea pigs, oblivious to what will inevitably be an unfortunate end to their current, mutually beneficial relationship. I also check out a local cuy farm, where the production of guinea pigs is a tad more industrial.
Having never owned a pet guinea pig, I might have reacted a little differently if the cages were full of fox terriers or tabby cats. Regardless, any self-respecting Bucket List demands one get a taste of the exotic, to get under the skin of culture – in this case with a knife and fork. And so I head to La Hornilla, one of Cotachi’s air-conditioned cuy eateries, happy to escape the hot equatorial sun. I order fried chicken for hunger, and cuy for kicks. A World Cup qualifier between Ecuador and fierce rival Bolivia blares from a nearby television. Staff grudgingly trudge off to the kitchen to prepare my meal. Ecuador had scored three times by the time my gold-battered cuy arrives, deep-fried in three pots to seal in the flavour. Its tiny claws are gnarled, its sharp teeth blackened. Despite an instant wave of nausea, I remind myself that culture determines what is acceptably edible. My love for pickled herring and chopped liver might horrify a villager in Ecuador. Peeling away the rodent’s crispy skin, I’m disappointed to find there’s not much meat on the bone. What meat there is strings onto my fork like melted orthodontic elastics. I can’t stop thinking about my college pet hamster Harold, procured, named and abandoned by a German traveller named Jens I’d met on an Israeli kibbutz. Harold went missing in my car for two weeks before resurfacing, alive, on my dashboard. True story, but I digress.
Guinea pig tastes like chicken, as so many things do. This is because we are severely limited in the manner in which we compare food. If the meat is light on taste – like turtle, snake, rabbit, dog or crocodile – it could ably substitute for chicken in a chow mien. Rodent too, although seal and whale meat is best left for goulash. Cuy skin does however have a gamey sour tang.
Household pets are an acquired taste, and unlike cognac, brandy and cigars, it is a taste I have little intention to acquire in the future. The Great Global Bucket List however insists you sample local delicacies you would never put on the menu back home. This makes for an unforgettable experience, and a particularly delicious story to tell at dinner parties, I’d suggest waiting until after dessert.