Tukka bar and restaurant on the oceanside in East End has garnered a reputation as a place where people go to try new things – kangaroo filet mignon, an ostrich steak, a lionfish taco.
On a recent evening the venue held private tasting trials as research and development for a potential new dish it is dubbing “tree chicken.”
The table is set, the wine has been poured and five diners, volunteers in this culinary experiment, are contemplating the essential question of the night, “Are we ready to eat a lizard?”
Green iguanas are a staple on menus in parts of Central America.
In Grand Cayman, they are more commonly known as roadkill.
Whether you see them as amiable island characters, jauntily careering across highways, or as sidewalk splattered vermin, it’s clearly a psychological leap to imagine an iguana on your dinner plate.
But meat is meat, right? And currently there is no more environmentally friendly food.
The population of the invasive species is exploding at such a rate that experts predict there will be two million of them within three years.
Amid fears they will overrun the island, stripping trees and crops and causing lasting damage to the ecosystem, the Department of Environment shelled out more than $70,000 to hunters in a trial cull that saw more than 14,000 iguanas killed in a week.
It is not clear, in the long term, if government will be able to continue paying a $5-a-head bounty to cullers only for the slain iguanas to be disposed of at the George Town landfill.
Ron Hargrave, Tukka’s owner and head chef, and one of the early pioneers of the “eat ‘em, to beat ‘em” approach with invasive lionfish, wants to see if the same tactics could help monetize iguana hunting on an ongoing basis.
That is why he’s standing in front of me with a plate of popcorn “tree chicken” – battered iguana tail, with lime and Scotch bonnet remoulade. I pick up a fork and take the plunge.
It’s good. Really good. Like a tangy calamari, it’s easy to see it as a staple appetizer.
As the dishes keep coming, a debate rages about the most appropriate comparison.
In texture, it’s perhaps closest to pork.
But the “breaded wings” could almost be Kentucky Fried Chicken.
The West Indian yellow curry has the stringy texture of goat.
Stewed and served on a bed of callaloo with green peas and orzo pasta, it draws comparisons to beef.
There’s clearly more than one way to eat an iguana.
“I’ve surprised myself,” says Mr. Hargrave.
“I’ve been eating this while I have been cooking all day.”
If he could get a steady supply of ethically culled, properly processed cuts, he says, he would put it on the menu as soon as possible.
By the time we’ve worked our way through the tasting menu, we’ve consumed all the edible parts of the iguana, from the hindquarters to the tail and the forelegs.
The plates are empty and any inhibitions have evaporated.
A dish of iguana egg fried rice arrives. We do not think twice.
Maria Yapelli, one of the culinary guinea pigs and the part-owner of lionfish culling and processing business, Spinion, is already thinking about opportunities.
The business currently sells locally caught lionfish fillets to restaurants, including Tukka, and has long harbored ambitions of processing the invasive fish for the export market in the U.S.
The demand for environmentally friendly food sources is stimulating a growing niche in the market and she’s thinking aloud about the potential of adding iguanas to Spinion’s brand of ethical eats aimed at eco-conscious diners.
If the U.S. does not have the appetite for such adventurous eating, more reliable markets could be found in parts of Central America, where some species of iguana have been hunted to the brink of extinction.
The start point would be Grand Cayman. Any plan to serve iguanas in restaurants here would have to involve a business like Spinion, which has a processing plant.
Strict regulations guide the slaughter and handling of meat for sale to consumers and it is likely that there would be regulatory hoops to jump through before the process of taking iguanas from tree to plate is established.
“We first have to find … a restaurant that is interested. We have to work with somebody and Ron seems like the right guy, he’s got the perfect menu for people who want to try new things,” she says.
For Mr. Hargrave, an appetizer seems like the best place to start. He can easily see demand for his popcorn tree chicken from diners keen to do their part.
“That’s always been the appeal of lionfish too. People can order it and feel like they are doing good for the environment,” he says.
Ms. Yapelli’s business partner, Jeffrey Rivers, is sold. “I could easily see myself sitting with a bucket of these things watching a football game,” he eulogizes as he tucks into another breaded wing.
It is clear from the Tukka trials that whatever barriers exist to putting iguanas on restaurant menus, taste is not one of them.