Guinea Pig

Appears in

Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

  • About

guinea pig (also known as cavy), Cavia porcellus in its domesticated form, and also existing in numerous wild species, acquired its name from Guiana, where Europeans arriving in S. America found it. Its original home was in the highlands of Peru and Bolivia.

The guinea pig had already been domesticated by the Inca of Peru, for whom it was an important food. Sophie Coe (1994) writes of them thus:

Domesticated and widespread by 2000 BC in the highlands, their squeaking and rustling still enlivens Indian dwellings today. They are fed specially collected wild plants and, because they cannot climb, a simple sill is enough to keep them inside the house. Notorious for quick multiplication, two males and twenty females are said to be able to provide a family with a cuy a day.

The Indians eat this little animal with the skin on, only removing the hair as if it were a suckling pig. For them it is a great delicacy, and they cook it whole, gutted, with much chilli and smooth pebbles from the river. The stones they call calapurca, which in Aymara means ‘stomach stones’, because in this dish they put the stones in the belly of the cuy. This dish the Indians consider a greater delicacy than anything the Spaniards can make. (Cobo, Historia del Nuevo Mundo (1890–93), ii. 306).

The stones Cobo describes were heated before they were put into the belly of the cuy. Roasting and boiling using heated stones were important in Andean culinary technology, and had other applications as well. During the siege of Cuzco, when the rebelling Inca had a force of Spaniards bottled up in the town, the thatched roofs were set on fire by hot stones hurled by the Inca. Putting a few heated pebbles in the body cavity of a cuy would have posed no problem. Other recipes for cooking cuy suggest stuffing it with mint and Tagetes minuta, a Mexican species of New World marigold. … The entrails of the cuy could be cooked with potatoes in a soup, or made into sauce.