You don't eat your pets for dinner!

In Peru, guinea pigs are on the menu.
In Peru, guinea pigs are on the menu. Photo: Simon Schluter

My chair is squeaking. Strange, I haven't even sat on it yet. OK, "chair" might be going a bit far - it's just a roughly hewn bench, a low wooden thing jammed into the pressed-mud floor.

But it's definitely squeaking.

On closer inspection, the squeaking isn't coming from the bench but below it, towards the back of the hut. There's barely any light in there, just the dying rays of sun poking through the gaps in the wall like prison bars on the dark earth.

Squeak, squeak.

I can't take the curiosity any more, so I bend down, crane my neck and peer under the bench. Slowly, an amazing sight appears: a whole lot of little faces taking shape in the gloom. Furry, cute faces. Guinea pig faces.

There must be 10 of them down there. Maybe 20. Squeaking away. And they're not even penned in. After a few minutes they cast aside their shyness and venture into the centre of the room, a fluffy, moving carpet of rodents on the rough floor.

Usually, this would be joyous. "Aw," you'd think, "look at the little fellas." You might be tempted to try to grab one and give it a pat. Or just brush soft fur as it scurries past.

Trouble is, this is Peru, which means the guinea pigs squeaking below aren't pets - they're dinner.

Glorious, tasty dinner. The hut I'm in is someone's kitchen, a place set in a coffee plantation high in the Andes. The real reason I'm here is to taste the coffee, which is bubbling away on a wood-fired stove, its rich aroma cancelling out the guinea pig.

However, despite the obviously fine cup of coffee coming my way, the main attractions are still scurrying around on the floor, nibbling scraps of food by my feet. It's fascinating and disturbing at the same time.

This two-metre-by-two-metre wooden hut serves as kitchen, farm and pantry. Maria, who lives here, uses the guinea pigs like little garbage disposals, dropping food scraps on the ground to be quickly devoured.

Maria, of course, will ultimately return the favour.

This is the disturbing part. For a gringo used to buying his meat from a neatly sealed packet at the supermarket, getting personal with dinner can seem pretty strange.

I ask Maria if any of them have names. Javier, another Peruvian who's doing the translating, shakes his head. "You don't usually give your dinner a name," he says.

Fair point. But you wonder if these guinea pigs have an inkling of their fate. Can they see their future from that low vantage point on the mud floor? Or do they just shrug off the sudden disappearance of their mate Brian, and the not-coincidental appearance of dinner plates?

The other disturbing thing is that Maria and her family are planning to eat the guinea pigs at all.

They're pets! You don't eat guinea pigs. At least, we don't eat guinea pigs. It's accepted wisdom in the Western world. But it's hardly my place as a visitor to complain. (And besides, I never had a guinea pig as a pet, so there's nothing deeply scarring about to happen here.)

In cultures across the globe, certain animals are designated as food and certain animals are designated as friends. Trouble is, they don't always match up and it can take a while to get your head around the differences.

Some cultures eat horses. Others abhor the consumption of cows. Some eat dogs. Some cats. Some rats.

And in Peru they eat guinea pigs, or "cuy" as the locals call them, which, incidentally, is onomatopoeic. Say it out loud, then think about the sound guinea pigs make.

Peruvians don't, however, eat rabbits. Everyone looks shocked when you mention rabbits. "Are you mad?" they're probably thinking. "Rabbits are pets! Cuy are food."

Fine. You can't knock it until you try it, which is why, a few days after my visit to Maria's coffee plantation, I find myself sitting at a table faced with a plate of primary school pet.

Somewhat frighteningly, it's cooked whole, but it least with its crispy skin it no longer resembles the cute critters on Maria's floor. And the taste? Good. Great, even.

It's probably never going to take off in Australia though. We're just too hard-wired to think of guinea pigs as pets - which should be cause for miniature sighs of relief the country over.

bengroundwater@gmail.com

Have you ever eaten something while travelling you would never touch at home? Post a comment below.

Comments