Cuzco’s location, nearly dropping off the eastern edge of the Andes, gives it access to an unbelievable range of crops from highland potatoes and quinoa to avocados, jungle fruit and ají picante (hot chili).
Most popular local restaurants are outside the historic center and focus on lunch; few open for dinner. Don’t expect to encounter any language other than Spanish in these places, but the food is worth the effort! Pampa de Castillo is the street near Qorikancha where local workers lunch on Cuzco classics. Expect lots of caldo de gallina (chicken soup) and chicharrón (deep-fried pork) with corn, mint and, of course, potato, in a range of restaurants.
The Guinea Pig’s Culinary Rise
Love it or loathe it, cuy (guinea pig), is an Andean favorite that’s been part of the local culinary repertoire since pre-Inca times. And before you dredge up childhood memories of cuddly mascots in protest, know that these rascally rodents were gracing Andean dinner plates long before anyone in the West considered them worthy pet material.
Pinpointing the gastronomic history of the cuy, a native of the New World, is harder than trying to catch one with your bare hands. It’s believed that cuy may have been domesticated as early as 7000 years ago in the mountains of southern Peru, where wild populations of cuy still roam today. Direct evidence from Chavín de Huántar shows that they were certainly cultivated across the Andes by 900 BC. The arrival of the Spanish in the 18th century led to the European debut of cuy, where they rode a wave of popularity as the must-have exotic pet of the season (Queen Elizabeth I of England supposedly kept one).
How they earned the name guinea pig is also in doubt. Guinea may be a corruption of the South American colony of Guiana, or it may refer to Guinea, the African country that cuy would have passed through on their voyage to Europe. Their squeals probably account for the latter half of their name.
Cuy are practical animals to raise and have adapted well over the centuries to survive in environments ranging from the high Andean plains to the barren coastal deserts. Many Andean households today raise cuy as part of their animal stock and you’ll often see them scampering around the kitchen in true free-range style. Cuy are the ideal livestock alternative: they’re high in protein, feed on kitchen scraps, breed profusely and require much less room and maintenance than traditional domesticated animals.
Cuy is seen as a true delicacy, so much so that in many indigenous interpretations of The Last Supper, Jesus and his disciples are sitting down to a hearty final feast of roast cuy.
An integral part of Andean culture, even beyond the kitchen table, cuy are also used by curanderos (healers) in ceremonial healing rituals. Cuy can be passed over a patient’s body and used to sense out a source of illness and cuy meat is sometimes ingested in place of hallucinogenic plants during shamanistic ceremonies.
If you can overcome your sentimental inhibitions, sample this furry treat. The rich flavors are a cross between rabbit and quail, and correctly prepared cuy can be an exceptional feast with thousands of years of history.
Avenida El Sol & Downhill
Pampa de Castillo is the street near Qorikancha where local workers lunch on Cuzco classics. Expect lots of caldo de gallina (chicken soup) and chicharrones, deep-fried pork chunks with corn, mint and, of course, potato, in a range of restaurants.
Most popular local restaurants are outside the historic center and focus on lunch; few open for dinner. Don’t expect to encounter any language other than Spanish in these places, but the food is worth the effort!