Sunday, May 1, 2011

Gettin' Cuy-zee

To be honest, discovering our hidden culinary capabilities has made us somewhat disillusioned with the local cuisine. The comically cheap, generously portioned, and often tasty almuerzos sold on every corner in town, for all their virtues, can't really match up, for instance, with the delectability and pride afforded by our balsamic vinegar-marinated eggplant-mushroom-onion-mozzarella sandwiches on homemade wheat buns still steaming from the oven and dressed with garlic-basil mayo, served with home-baked potato chips. So instead of spending $1.25 for a filling lunch, we spend less money and more time by making it ourselves.

Every once in a while, however, our adventuresomeness and curiosity in our new surroundings get the best of us. We happen to live in a section of Cuenca renowned for its large number of comedores serving the local delicacy: cuy, the onomatopoetic Spanish word for guinea pig. Every afternoon on the bus coming from work, we pass a dozen roadside storefronts with rows of rodents roasting on spits, next to whole pigs, entire bodies still intact, eerily smiling at us with strips of golden-fried skin shaved off their flanks. We still haven't quite gotten used to the sight. But after having been asked by our students dozens of times whether we'd tried cuy, we decided that since we're here, since it's so strange, and since we probably won't have this opportunity again anytime soon, it would be worth a try. So a couple of weeks ago, we did.

When we pass by the row of restaurants, we often see two dachshunds running around a particular stall, probably scrounging for the scraps of the meals their owners are preparing. Having both had wiener dogs growing up, we took it as a sign that, if we have to choose, it was an easy choice: trust the wiener dogs. So we made our way down the street one Saturday night, nervous but determined to tuck away an iconic Ecuadorian experience. 

We awkwardly approached the restaurateur and asked to try cuy, then were shown into the large and completely empty dining room, where we sat and nervously anticipated our meal. First came the appetizers of puffed corn and potatoes and then, soon after, an entire cuy presented on a plate, hacked to pieces but still easily recognizable as having been the furry little creature found in cages in so many American elementary school classrooms. We couldn't resist going through the unbearably gringo ritual of posing with the poor critter's greasy head.

And then we clumsily attempted to separate the edibles from the inedibles, a process that never seemed to quite make sense. Molly got through a few bites of the chicken-like meat before giving up; I kept at it much too long, trying to divide the disgusting bits from the more disgusting bits. Neither of us was hungry at the end of the meal, but it didn't have much to do with the amount we ate. We've yet to cook meat in our Ecuadorian home, so we now eat animals only on our rare ventures to restaurants. Yes, it was incredibly greasy, but it really didn't taste that bad. Our stomachs are conditioned to a near-vegetarian diet, though, and the cuy was stretching their limits.

On the whole, totally worth it. We're not curious anymore, and when our students ask us if we've tried it, we can proudly answer in the affirmative - and politely decline any invitations to try it again. 

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