Excerpt: Guinea Pigs and Peanut Sauce
A life in Quito, exploring its culinary delights and human geography
The Jolly Pilgrim, Part 8, subchapter 97
Guinea pigs have been an important element in Andean diets for 7,000 years. Their consumption is a tricky cross-cultural food issue. Some people (from countries where they’re usually kept as pets) find the sight of their paws and teeth sticking out (after they’ve been spit-roasted) unnerving. The native word for them, Cuy (‘cooi’), presumably derives from the cute squeaking sounds the furry little fellas make before you cook them. Kwee kwee.
I finally spotted one on the menu while out to dinner with Marisol, who works at my adopted English-language bookshop in the New Town. The bookshop is run by Mark, an Essex boy, and it’s a meeting place for an element of Quito’s Anglo-American expat community, who are uniformly male, middle-aged, obese, physically unattractive and (one can only assume) sexually underperforming. They’re all married to Ecuadorian women in their twenties. Get the idea?
Every day this particular crowd assembles in Mark’s bookshop in order to carry on their favoured topics of conversation – namely, complaining about:
- The Ecuadorians
- Ecuadorian women
Marisol, who witnesses these conversations on a daily basis, is a level-headed sort who sees the funny side. She also reports that Mark is an excellent boss.
My dinner with Marisol was one of three nights out following two weeks of hermetic existence during which I put in long stretches typing up notes at the internet café and only spoke to Henry, Reuben and (briefly) Nella. As Christmas loomed, I thought I’d better try being sociable. That involved excursions to the Mariscal.
The Mariscal – centre of Quito’s New Town – is a classic example of the sort of ghetto found across the world due to current discrepancies in global wealth: relatively rich expats congregating in one part of a relatively poor country. If you want to party you go to the Mariscal or, as the taxi drivers refer to it, ‘gringoland’.
In the clubs the music shifts between contemporary pop/rock and the obligatory salsa. These guys know how to salsa, so if your skills aren’t up to scratch, be prepared to look silly. Take it from one who knows. They’re also international places where younger Ecuadorians of both genders practise ‘gringo hunting’. Such an environment attracts a colourful assortment of criminals and dodgy characters. It’s exciting, dangerous and very seedy.
As for my guinea pig dinner, I ate mine with avocado, potatoes and peanut sauce: high in protein, low in cholesterol and hits the spot with a 2005 Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon. Yum.
An excerpt from the travel and philosophy book, The Jolly Pilgrim.