For many people in the U.S., guinea pigs are adorable family pets. The idea of rolling them in batter and tossing them in the deep fryer sounds downright unconscionable. But food cultures can change rapidly, and for a small but growing number of American foodies, this charismatic rodent is being eyed for a new purpose: dinner, according to NPR.
Truth be told, guinea pigs were originally domesticated for their meat — not for their companionship. In fact, the rodents remain a popular source of protein for many Andean peoples in South America, who first domesticated them 7,000 years ago. Even today, guinea pig (called "cuy") is a common sight on South American menus.
Sentimentalities for the creatures have largely saved them from the fork in North America, but as more South American expats seek out the tastes of home, that's beginning to change. Many Peruvian or Chilean restaurants now include cuy as a featured entrée, and U.S. foodies are increasingly taking notice. In some circles, guinea pig has become the latest bizarre food trend.
It's not just foodies who are prepping these rodents for the rotisserie, however. So are environmentalists. In fact, some activists are now promoting guinea pig meat as a green, carbon-friendly alternative to beef.
"Guinea pigs don't require the land that cattle do. They can be kept in backyards, or in your home. They're docile and easy to raise," pointed out Matt Miller, a science writer with The Nature Conservancy.
In other words, guinea pigs are a low-impact meat source. They breed quickly and take up little space. Alternatively, raising cattle for the production of beef presents a number of environmental challenges. Most notable is its carbon footprint. Not only do ranchers need to clear a lot of land for cattle, but cows belch and fart large quantities of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Nowhere are these environmental pressures so apparent as in South America, where the leading cause of deforestation in the Amazon is to raise cattle.
Guinea pigs also make for more efficient livestock than cattle. According to Jason Woods from the humanitarian organization Heifer International, a cow requires about 8 pounds of feed to render a pound of meat, while a guinea pig requires half as much.
But what do they taste like? Surprisingly, they don't taste like chicken. Diego Oka, executive chef at La Mar Cebicheria in San Francisco, claims that cuy is "very oily, like pork combined with rabbit." In South America, the dish is most commonly prepared by grilling the animal whole or dunking it in a deep fryer — whole. Due to the sensitivities of U.S. diners, however, Oka removes the animal's head and extremities when serving cuy at his restaurant.
"There's a clear cultural prejudice against eating guinea pigs, and rodents in general, in the United States," said Miller. "But finding ways to reduce our carbon footprint is a good idea, and so is eating small livestock, like guinea pigs."
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