Cayman Islands chefs are hoping to turn green iguana into a marketable food source in an effort to make better use of the thousands of culled animals currently being disposed of at the landfill.
A delicacy in Latin America, often compared to chicken, green iguana will make its culinary debut at the Taste of Cayman food festival this year.
Thomas Tennant, one of the chefs who helped pioneer an “eat em to beat em” approach to tackling the invasive lionfish that threaten the health of Cayman’s reefs, believes a similar strategy can be effective with green iguanas.
Mr. Tennant, formerly of Michael’s Genuine Food and Drink, said making the invasive lizards a marketable food source was the only way to ensure numbers stayed down in the long term. Though government is currently investing heavily in an islandwide cull that has seen 250,000 iguanas killed in the last six weeks, Mr. Tennant questioned how long that would continue. He believes putting iguana on menus around the island could provide a more sustainable long-term solution.
So far, only Tukka in East End has taken the plunge, offering a starter platter of green iguana-based dishes to diners.
Mr. Tennant hopes his demonstrations at Taste of Cayman, the KAABOO festival and Cayman Cookout will help convince more chefs to get involved.
He acknowledged that some were reluctant to eat lizard, but said there had been barriers to lionfish at first, and now it is only lack of supply that prevents it from being a staple on menus all over the island.
“I had to get people to watch me eat lionfish to convince them it was OK,” he said. “Iguana might be a harder sell for some people. I am trying to figure out the best presentation for Taste of Cayman. It is actually pretty good, lean meat, like dark meat chicken.”
He said he had experimented at Cayman Thanksgiving, testing his ideas on family and friends.
“I have stewed it, jerked it, grilled it. I actually made a pâté, which turned out pretty good.”
He believes confit-syle slow cooking may be the best method to put iguana on the main course.
Mr. Tennant believes both lionfish and iguana have a unique appeal to eco-conscious diners who want to eat meat while helping the environment. He said putting it on menus could be good for everyone.
The Department of Environment has already expressed support for initiatives to make iguana a food source. Fred Burton, the department’s terrestrial resources manager, previously told the Compass that targeting iguanas for food could help maintain pressure on the species once numbers start to come down.
One barrier to using the tens of thousands of iguanas currently being culled for food is the regulations governing preparation of culled animals for human consumption.
Export business Spinion, which has a food processing plant in George Town, can only accept live iguana, because the animals have to be culled on site to meet food safety standards.
The business is supplying processed green iguana to Tukka, as well as to the U.S. export market.
“I think the importance of the commercial side will really kick in once the DoE cull ends,” said Maria Yapelli, who runs the business.
“I think what Tom is doing at Taste of Cayman will be really telling as far as creating a desire for iguana on the island. So far, it is just Tukka that is serving green iguana. It will be interesting to see if more restaurants start to do it.”
Ron Hargrave, who runs Tukka in East End, said the dish had proved popular among diners. He serves it as an appetizer platter, cooked three different ways. He is supportive of the government-sponsored cull but would like to see the culled animals put to better use.
“My take on this is, it is a shame that they are just dropping them in a pit,” he said. “It doesn’t seem respectful to the animal. It is a food source that could be used. It would be good to do something with them and not have them go to waste.”