The Cuy Has Landed

21 Nov

After nearly three months in Ecuador I’ve finally tried one of the staples of the “comida typica.” Cuy (coo-ee), or guinea pig, is a traditional dish in Ecuador, but isn’t served that often because it is more like an expensive delicacy. Since coming here I’ve tried a number of the traditional dishes, including ceviche, mota, and other odds and ends, but hadn’t gotten around to the big dog.

It seemed as though every time I was going to try it something came up. Plans in Ecuador are usually not definite until a few minutes before they’re going to happen, so if you agree to do something in two days, it could likely not happen. That was the case with my attempts at eating cuy on many occasions.

Last Friday some of my students were going to bring in cuy for the pizza party, but never did. Because of this, two of my students felt bad and wanted to take me out for some cuy. Because they didn’t tell me beforehand where we were going, I didn’t have a camera ready, unfortunately. I was excited to try the food, even though many foreigners are known not to enjoy the food.

A lot of Americans have trouble accepting cuy as a meal, mainly because to many people, a guinea pig is a pet, and not a dish. One time in a Spanish class a group did a presentation on Ecuador. They talked about cuy being a popular dish, and most of the class groaned in disgust. My teacher Mikee, who is Ecuadorian, made a great point. It’s just a difference in culture, and most people in the United States have no problem downing hot dogs, which is known to be just the rejected meat of the rest of a pig. Each culture has its own standard on what’s edible and what is not.

So what was the cuy like? It wasn’t that bad, and it wasn’t that great. A bit gamy, it was kind of like a cross between turkey and duck. While eating it I thought it might be the Ecuadorian equivalent of lobster up north. They’re both expensive and usually eaten on special occasions, and they’re both a lot of work for not that much gain. It was tough cutting through the skin to get to only a little bit of meat.

With the head left on, the torso was cut into four sections, each person taking a quarter. Accompanying the meat were potatoes in a special sauce and mota, a type of corn. Sprinkling some aji on it, the pepper gave it a nice flavor that played off well, considering there wasn’t much of a spice on it. Before the meal was served we were given some canelaso, an aguardiente (sugarcane) liquor, to apparently ready the stomach for the food. During the meal, however, we had Coke, and after wards had the canelaso again, to settle the stomach.

I’m a reasonable person, so I understand that not all food tastes the same. The cuy was OK, but not great. But that could also have been the one that I had. It would be absurd to go to a restaurant, order chicken and assume every piece of chicken tastes the same (though essentially, it does). Sometimes you just get a bad chef. So I’d definitely try cuy again, but it’s not the kind of meat that I’m going to run out and beg my host mom to buy once a week.

When I got home my host mom made me some oregano tea because she told me that some people get sick after eating cuy for the first time. I’m not sure if the tea helped, but I felt fine after wards and went out with my host brother to a party for the engineering school. It was funny watching all of the students interact. So many people wanted to take photos holding bottles of alcohol, and it just reminded me of high school or my own college days.

Suddenly a fashion show broke out, and 5 girls from the different engineering schools were competing to be Queen of Engineering. It was like the Miss America pageant if they allowed drunken frat boys in to yell and whistle. A couple of the girls looked like they really wanted to win, but the others looked like they were basically forced up there because they were good looking and wanted nothing to do with it. I just felt badly for them.

There were two rounds and even a wardrobe change before three girls were finally chosen as the Queens, given flowers and sashes, and paraded around the stage. So much of Ecuadorian parades just remind me of what I’ve seen in movies about the 1950s in the United States. The party went on until 2 am, and though I was tired and wanted to go home by 11, we stayed the whole time.

One thing I’ve noticed over and over again is the disregard for the safety of the people who have had too much to drink. Back home, if a friend is clearly too drunk, someone in the group (usually the most sober) will unofficially become the caretaker. They will make sure that the drunk doesn’t drink anymore, has water, and gets home safely. Here, however, the friends just go with it, if not in an immature way, than in a loving way.

At the party, two or three guys were sitting in their chairs, heads in their laps, ready to pass out. Instead of getting them water, their friends would slap them on the back and hand them another drink. Two times a guy fell out of his chair and hit his head on the ground, but his friends just laughed and had him jump around. A common response is, “You’re just drunk, don’t worry about it.” It’s not my place to question how they handle these situations, but I feel like there are better ways to deal with it.

This weekend will be spent preparing for my trip next week to Guaranda and Riobamba. I might not be able to write while I’m gone, but there will be plenty to talk about when I get back.

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