Hideki Harada Oyakawa ’25 (He/Him)
At Davidson, you can walk into the Davis Café and get a plate of sushi any day of the week. We take it as a normal, even mainstream, part of our daily lives. But, only 60 years ago, the idea of eating raw fish using wooden sticks was not popular in the United States. Just think about it for a second—how can raw fish and rice be an appealing combination? But in the 1960s and 70s— with Japan rising as a tourist destination, and movies and tv shows popularizing Japanese culture—sushi soon became the holy grail of adventurous Americans. Since then, sushi has become so popular in the United States that its ‘American version’ hardly ever resembles traditional Japanese sushi.
As a Japanese descendant who grew up in Peru, I know well that the food we consider normal can bring unpleasant feelings to other people. When I wanted to invite a friend to eat at home, I had to make sure that we weren’t having “strange, exotic, Asian” food that day. Even eating with chopsticks was seen as a peculiar practice, taken from a cartoon. What was normal for me was sometimes downright weird for them.
What my friends—and Peruvians in general—did not realize, or maybe they did not like to admit, is that Peruvian cuisine also has ‘weird’ food. I mean… who eats their pets!
Before explaining this, fast forward to the present for a second. In the past ten years, Peruvian cuisine has been the protagonist in international competitions. Peru has won the Best Culinary Destination Award for eight consecutive years, and in 2020, two of the ten best restaurants in the world were Peruvian. This year, three Peruvian restaurants are part of the top five in Latin America with Central, from Lima holding the title of Greatest Restaurant in Latin America since 2013.
Cosmopolitan cities, like London and New York, have begun to receive and popularize Peruvian restaurants more than ever. But, what does this have to do with eating pets?
Some of the most popular traditional dishes in the Andes of Peru use guinea pigs—yes, the small, cute-looking rodents. Many houses, especially in rural areas, raise guinea pigs the same way some households raise chickens until the day comes when they look more delicious than cute. Although it may sound weird (please notice the euphemism) for many, this is a common practice in countries like Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador, especially in the Andes. Some traditional recipes are “Picante de cuy” and “Cuy chactado.” If you are wondering—probably not—what guinea pigs taste like, a better known food, and yet still weird for many, would be rabbit.
As Peruvian food becomes increasingly popular among elite restaurants and culinary circles, I cannot stop wondering whether a similar phenomenon to the expansion of Japanese cuisine will occur. Just picture going to a restaurant and ordering a guinea pig the same way you pick a lobster minutes before eating it. You surely would have to overcome the idea of adopting a guinea pig before eating it, which doesn’t really happen when you see lobster.
It’s hard for me to imagine how Japanese restaurants took the risk of offering sushi in America in the 60s. But it’s even harder to imagine how Peruvian restaurants in America would even try to put guinea pigs on their menu these days. Will they ever dare to do so? And even if they did—and perhaps most importantly—would you be adventurous enough to try it?
Hideki Harada Oyakawa (he/him) is an intended Political Science major from Huancayo, Peru. He can be reached for comment at email@example.com.