Whenever I find myself about to try an exotic new food in some far flung foreign land I find myself thinking about the dinner scene in the classic movie Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
Let me set the table…
Indy and his sidekick Short Round are sitting at a long table in an exotic Indian palace along with Willy, a Shanghai nightclub singer who is tagging along for the adventure. Everything is glamorous and exciting, spiced with colonial intrigue and glamour.
Then the food arrives.
‘Ah! Snake surprise!’ says a corpulent Indian noble as a retainer sets a platter down on the table, a huge snake coiled on the silver.
‘What’s the surprise?’ Willy asks, barely concealing her horror.
The servant cuts into the flesh with a long knife, freeing a torrent of bloody, squirming baby snakes which everyone starts eating with their hands. The next course comes; giant beetles washed down with eyeball soup then for dessert it’s chilled monkey brains, served au naturel, with the monkey’s severed head acting as the bowl!
It’s hysterically funny watching the Westerners squirm as their local hosts devour these unusual delights and encourage them to partake.
‘You are not eating? Why?’
Now Indian food is actually in no way like that. In fact, if I had to choose a cuisine to represent Earth’s best to the Aliens I’d very likely send them a Madras curry and some garlic Naan bread.
But the tongue-in-cheek movie scene perfectly sums up the fear that us cosseted Westerners can sometimes feel when we go to a new place and try the local food. We worry that we will be served something utterly bonkers and will deeply offend our hosts if we refuse.
“No sheep testicles for me. No really, I just ate…”
Well, I’m usually never one to let my trepidation get in the way of new tastes.
In the Amazon I tried Chontacuros, also known a Chontan worms, a sort of fat grub that’s cooked over a wood fire on a skewer and eaten as a snack. It tasted like chicken, in a good way. I’ve eaten spiders in Cambodia, witchetty grubs in Australia and even got down a Dunkin’ Donut in the USA.
However, in Ecuador I tried to avoid eating cuy, the national dish.
It’s a guinea pig for Pete’s sake! Back in Australia we have them as pets. In Ecuador, you can buy them at the meat market in a sack or go to a speciality restaurant where chefs slot a skewer between their mouth and anus before roasting them over a coal fire.
But just my luck, Carmen and I decided to spend nine weeks in Cuenca, Ecuador’s culture capital… and the reputed home of the country’s finest cuys.
There was no avoiding it. It was inevitable. Gulp!
You can watch the video of our cuy feast here:
One Friday afternoon our Spanish school organised a field trip to eat cuy. It was one of those peer pressure situations. Everyone else was keen. So we signed up and after class we walked through the sun drenched streets to a cuy restaurant, said to be one of the oldest and most famous in the city.
To get our taste buds warmed up we went around the back where the chefs were preparing these cute little delicacies.
Dozens of cuy were being slow roasted on spits, turning a golden brown colour as they turned and turned over smoking coal fires. When one was ready the chefs would pull it off the skewer and cut it up with a massive pair of scissors.
We went inside the restaurant for the moment of truth. Out from the back came the platters of cuy meat and salad.
I took a piece from the middle of the cuy. The head was still very much recognisable as a family pet with all its teeth intact and the paws on the legs still attached to the chest sections still had all of their nails. Cuy surprise anyone?
The cuy on my plate looked a little bit like roast pork with a layer of crackling skin covering a greyish meat. The spit roast had done a good job of cooking it so I cut a slice and prepared to pop it into my mouth. I could smell garlic very strongly because the cuys are fed the vegetable to season them before they’re slaughtered.
Alright, I thought, here goes and took a bite.
It was…okay. The skin was a bit tough, but the meat was good. Not as flavoursome as pork or chicken and little bit toward gamey but still quite good. The only problem was there wasn’t much of it. Cuy is quite a small animal and even though they’re bred to be eaten and fattened up as much as possible there is only so much meat to go around.
It was very boney. It tasted like pigeon actually.
Another exotic food I’ve eaten, and one I’d also probably pass on a second time around.
Carmen didn’t enjoy her cuy much either and left most of it on the plate. I guess we won’t be trying cuy again!
But I’m chuffed I tried it. Just about everyone I meet in Ecuador, locals and tourists, ask ‘have you tried cuy yet?’
Now I can say yes – and leave it at that!