Saturday, September 23, 2023
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Cuy for Breakfast

Everyone goes through a hesitant stage when it comes to trying new cuisines. I went through it 20 years ago, in my brat-phase teen years, when the cornerstone of my food pyramid was milkshakes, burgers, pizza and chips.

Don't blame my folks, though; they were no slouches. They made sure our household brimmed with delicious delicacies. And being from Peru, both Mom and Pops introduced my sisters and me to some creative plates that we long for to this day, though now it's up to us to reproduce those dishes to share with our families.

That's why, as I walked past a new Latin fusion restaurant in New York not long ago, I beamed when I saw a Peruvian influence on its menu. But I wondered if my mother would have the same reaction to the steep prices, the South Beach décor, and a crowd as hip as the bumping house music.

Surely, she'd feel nostalgia and pride at the sight of her country's cuisine at the helm of a stylish, hipster restaurant scene in the middle of one of Manhattan's trendiest districts.

Peru's gastronomy has gain respect in the past few years, with a number of restaurants opening not only in the tri-state New York area, but around the nation. Peru's most famous chef, Gaston Acurio, the ambassador of the country's kitchens, wants Peruvian cuisine to be as mainstream as Mexican, Chinese and Indian. That'd be quite a feat, but with Peru turning out some of the most diverse plates in the world, the idea is not farfetched.

But there's one Peruvian item missing from most of the Peruvian restaurants here in the States: the cute and cuddly cuy, or guinea pig.

Yes, the same little critters that Johnny and Susie keep as pets in their rooms. It's a traditional Andean dish that dates back thousands of years, but became socially acceptable - in some society - only midway through the 20th century.

Socially acceptable to whom?

I'm not one to scoff at any country or culture's cuisine, not since 20 years ago, anyway. The cuy cuisine consumed by our indigenous brothers and sisters is still mocked by the higher classes in the Andean countries. But it's not mocked by one person I know - someone who would not be impressed with that funky New York spot: my abuelita, my grandmother, who is as old-school as they get.

Abuelita doesn't care about lower class, upper class or middle class, nor what the Third World is, and she surely doesn't care about Peru's slow but steady invasion of U.S. restaurants. No, the only thing she's ever cared about was feeding her large immediate family and her extended family - the grandkids.

That's why I had to make a quick decision one hungover morning while visiting her years ago on the outskirts of Lima. While my cousin and I slept off the previous night's activities, my dear abuelita had gone to the street market to buy the food to prepare us a morning feast.

As I struggled to open my eyes in bed, a delicious aroma filled the house that I couldn't quite place. I knew the cafe con leche and warm rolls were set out, but something else was triggering my scent receptors.

My curiosity was answered when my cousin strolled into the bedroom with what looked like a fried rat - the jokester had ahold of the animal's two front arms and puppeteered it to dance with my pillow.

I sat up and realized that this was our breakfast.

My all-American heart pounded as I went to wash up. I thought it was the alcohol from the night before but it soon set in that I was nerve-wracked about the meal I was about to eat, with my grandmother looking on, no less.

Sure enough, Abuelita served up our little friend and quietly watched while my cousin, born and bred Peruvian, tore into his cuy feast and practically dared me to decline the plate our Abuela had bestowed upon us.

I watched as my abuela, without a care in the world, sipped her café. As I slipped into my chair I recalled memories of my good ol' grandma spoiling us with magnificent entrees when we were kids, and how happy she was when we'd cleaned our plates.

I felt like a 21-year-old tourist in my own abuela's house. I dare not disrespect her or the Peruvian blood running through my own veins. So I snatched my breakfast by its legs and ate.

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