Friday, April 24, 2009

Roasted Guinea Pig & Grilled Alpaca

In February of this year we were in Cusco, Peru and visited the Incanto, a relatively new restaurant a few doors down from the cathedral. One of my priorities, while in Peru, was to eat guinea pig and alpaca. The Incanto served both.

Wikipedia, Guinea Pig, provides basic information on the guinea pig, or cuy as it is known in Spanish. The guinea pig weighs between 1.5 and 2.5 pounds and is 8 to 10 inches in length. They were originally domesticated for their meat in the Andes where they are fed the family's vegetable scraps. The meat is high in protein and low in fat and cholesterol and described as similar to rabbit and the dark meat of chicken (a fair desciption). It may be served fried (chactado or frito), broiled (asado) or roasted (al horno). Peruvians consume an estimated 65 million guinea pigs a year. Cuy t-shirts abound in the tourist shops and a famous painting of the Last Supper, in the Cusco Cathedral, just a few doors up from the Incanto, has Christ and the twelve apostles dining on guinea pig.

I ordered the guinea pig, as did two of my partners, John Mirau and Bill Tooke. It was served two different ways, both "al horno" or oven roasted. The restaurant had a large clay oven inside the restaurant in full view and we saw them roasting the various cuy dishes.

I was initially disappointed that our cuy came cut-up into pieces, without the head. I'd seen pictures of the cooked rodent, laying on its back, four feet jutting up into the air and the head still on. It just didn't seem like we were getting the full experience. However, I was happily surprised at how good it was. Bill got the cuy with gnocchi and John and I got it with potatoes. The cuy on both plates were prepared differently and tasted different, but I'm not sure what the differences were. Bill's seemed limited to the legs and thighs, As seen below.

John's and my version seemed to include the legs and thighs, as well as rib meat (what little there was of it). My first thought, in eating it, was prairie chicken. The leg bones seemed just about the same size and thickness as prairie chicken I've eaten. It is moist, like a dark meat, and had a wonderful flavor. I really enjoyed it for it's taste and not just for it's oddity. My potatoes were way too dry and I had to ask for butter, but the guinea pig was not inflicted with the same dryness.

The other unusal dish we had at Incanto was the alpaca. The alpaca is smaller than the domesticated llama and larger than the wild vicuna, which is believed to be the wild ancestor of the alpaca, which was specifically bred for its fiber which is used to make knitted and woven items, much like sheep's wool. Unlike the llama, the alpaca is too small to be used as a pack animal.

Judy and Susan Mirau both ordered the alpaca. Judy's dish was described as a "chinotto risotto" with green and black olives and it was grilled perfectly. It was nice and rare inside with a wonderful grilled taste on the outside. Judy described it as one of the best meats she's ever eaten and really loved it.

I did not have a chance to taste Susan's alpaca dish, but it appeared to be grilled similarly, but was served with a pasta and a creamy white sauce.

I was disappointed that we were not able to try cuy again. I did get another chance to eat alpaca, again in Cusco at a different restaurant. It was a disappointment. It was a thin, overcooked slice that had none of the flavor or moistness of the Incanto dish. I would best describe it as a tough piece of flank steak. It just served to highlight for me how wonderfully prepared the Incanto version was and the Incanto version was also a much better cut of meat.

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