No, this is not a Halloween post, I really did eat a brain – it was a little one, but still, it was a brain. I’ve always been an adventurous eater; though this meal was probably one of the most adventurous yet. There was 14 of us, and 3 of them – an easy task in my eyes. David (our Inca Trail guide) had called down to Aguas Caliente from Machu Picchu so we could eat the cuy fresh out of the oven…it was a brilliant plan! As he explained it to me, the guinea pig is best served freshly cooked – so if you are looking for a good one in Cusco, you’ll have to find a nice old lady who’s spent 3 hours roasting the animal and is willing to invite you into her home to share, and experience the meal properly. Generally, he explained, if you eat one at a restaurant, it will have been cooked in the morning, left to sit all day, then warmed up upon order. Our cuy were still sizzling in the oven when we arrived at the restaurant, a good sign for sure. It smelled almost like rotisserie chicken (another typical dish of Peru), but not quite. Once the entire group had arrived, the guinea pigs were served. There’s no doubt that they look like a mix between a rat and a ferret – not at all cute like the squat little guinea pigs we keep for pets in America. The crisp skin still glistened with fat – the way a duck or chicken’s would – and looked beautifully spiced. Skin is always my favorite part of a roasted bird, I expected it to be the same for the cuy.
David cut the rat in half, exposing its innards, at which most of the table cringed. ‘Weird,’ I thought, ‘it looks nothing like I expected it to.’ The meat seemed to be layered around the cavity of the body, appearing almost like inner sheets of skin. The animal was cut into quarters and passed around for all to try. I received my portion with a big smile – a stark contrast to the disgusted (or disturbingly excited) looks on the rest of the groups faces.
Upon closer inspection, the meat was met with fat between each layer, which I simply discarded (I’ve been known to eat grilled pig’s fat, but was not so keen on the guinea pig meat-divider fat). The white meat tasted very close to rabbit, and the dark meat tasted JUST like chicken. I’m still convinced that anyone who didn’t like the flavor of the meat just has a pre-conceived notion that they do not like it (because it’s a rat in their head), as it really was that close to chicken. To my surprise (and minimal disappointment) the skin was, for the most part, too hard to chew through – the guides did it, but I wasn’t trying to break any teeth. The parts of it that I could chew were delicious and spicy, just like rotisserie chicken skin.
Being the bravest eater in the group, I was given the head to try. The head meat was my least favorite part of the cuy. It had what I want to describe as a musty flavor – you know, like the smell of musty basement, but in your mouth – which was a bit difficult for me to get through. They told me the cheek meat was the best part, but I disagree – even the crunchy, and flavorless, eyeballs (yes I ate those too) were better than the cheeks. Once the meat was picked from the outer skull, it was time to get inside. I was instructed to stick the skull in my mouth, and bite on the center to break the bottom casing. I did break it, not nearly as neatly as David had, but I made it through…and then I ate its brain.
My face right after I put it in my mouth doesn’t really describe the experience – actually, I kind of look like I’m going to cry. It was really just the thought that eating a brain is gross which appears on my face, because (surprisingly) the brain was the best flavored portion of the head. It was rich and salty, with a creamy texture comparable to cream cheese, and melted away quickly on my tongue. Funny thing is, while that brain-eating moment lasted only a minute, it will stay clearly in my memory forever – the day I ate brain in Peru, and then played with skulls.