DAVIE, Fla. – Iguanas seem to be gaining ground in South Florida thanks to a perfect storm of conditions.
The hot weather combined with few natural enemies and an endless array of tropical vegetation and easily accessible food are giving the invasive species an advantage as they continue to become a growing concern in residential and business landscapes alike. Meanwhile, a University of Florida Institute for Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) document provides additional insight as to why these reptiles favor our South Florida environment as a hotspot.
As homeowners, environmental agencies and pest management companies seek ways to contain the population growth of iguanas, headlines and videos are reporting an interest by consumers who are transforming the aversion to the invasive species to an interest in incorporating the reptile meat in recipes.
It is no wonder, considering that hunting and eating green iguanas have been a cultural practice in South and Central America according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). Recent news reports indicate how in some Caribbean countries the iguanas are a staple to their dishes and in some cases even considered a delicacy.
“There is a reason why these invasive iguanas are hunted in their native countries as food to the point where they are considered endangered species,” said Frank Mazzotti, professor of wildlife ecology at the UF/IFAS Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center in Davie, Florida. “They are excellent to taste and they are a great source of food.”
When you combine the increase of these headlines with this summer’s FWC message urging consumers to follow safe methods for removing iguanas from their private property, the result is a recipe for what some might consider an opportunity.
Before you type a search for iguana meat recipes, there are a few things to ponder. Experts at UF/IFAS offer a few pros and cons with words of caution as to the risks and challenges if you are considering serving up a plate or bowl of iguana meat.
Degrees Matter When Cooking
“It is well known that one of the major types of microorganisms found in reptiles is Salmonella,” said Amy H. Simonne, professor of family, youth and community sciences and Extension specialist at UF/IFAS.
Salmonella is a kind of bacteria, with many different types (serotypes). Salmonella can be found in a variety of foods such as chickens, pigs, produce, and reptiles such as iguanas, just to name a few, said Simonne, who specializes in food safety and quality.
Salmonella infection is a foodborne illness that is caused by consuming foods contaminated with the Salmonella bacteria. Most infections spread to people through contaminated food. Salmonella bacteria can spread to people in foods contaminated by infected animal feces as well. This can happen when foods are not cooked thoroughly at the right temperature.
Simonne recommends using the U.S. Food and Drug Administration 2017 Food Code guidelines for cooking chicken safely to avoid foodborne illnesses and achieving safe standards of thoroughly cooked iguana meat. The code sets the minimum internal temperature requirements at 165 degrees Fahrenheit
Furthermore, Simonne adds that microwaving should not be considered when cooking iguana meat because it is not a reliable way to kill the Salmonella bacteria.
Finally, follow the five steps to food safety as outlined in this Electronic Data Information Source document found on the UF/IFAS Extension website which include:
- Proper cleaning,
- Cook food thoroughly at the right temperature,
- Refrigerate foods promptly,
- Avoiding cross contamination
- Utilize water and fresh wholesome foods from safe sources.
Where’s the meat?
William Kern, associate professor of the Entomology and Nematology Department at UF/IFAS at Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center, describes iguana meat as mild flavored and typically not tough. Most of the meat is on the legs, along the spine and on the tail.
Kern adds that while rib meat is usually not worth the effort, de-boned iguana meat is very well suited to curries, soups, stews, gumbo, and etouffée. The immature eggs from female iguanas can be saved and added to soups and stews. Small iguanas are usually cut into pieces and boiled, then cooled enough to pick off the meat. The meat is then returned to the pot for soups and stews. Large animals, measuring over 4 ft., can be de-boned and the dorsal meat filleted. The raw de-boned meat then must be thoroughly cooked just as you would prepare diced or sliced raw chicken.
If you are tempted to test your cooking skills with iguana meat, here are a few options to consider. Consumers can purchase iguana meat from a licensed and reputable meat company, said Simonne.
Capturing iguanas and properly euthanizing on private property can be difficult and should be left to professional nuisance wildlife trappers and pest management professionals, said Kern. On the other hand, research has shown that capturing iguanas at night by hand or with a noose pole is 20 times more effective than live trapping as well as less expensive, added Kern.
It is important to note that it is illegal to capture or trap iguanas on public parks and public lands, added Mazzotti.
To prepare an iguana for cooking
Kern suggests the following:
Iguanas can be cleaned and skinned. Keep in mind that iguana skin is tough, said Kern. Proceed by cutting along the spine, then peeling the skin back so as not to damage the meat or the bowel.
“Damaging the bowel will render contamination and you might as well throw the meat away because it will result in an unpleasant taste after being cooked,” he cautions.
Traditional recipes require that you parboil the dressed meat in salted water for 20 to 30 minutes before roasting or stewing. This too lessens the chance for accidental contamination.
Recipes from Around the World
Sopi Di Yuwana (Iguana Soup)
Collected by Bert Christensen, Toronto, Ontario Yield: 6 servings
Iguana meat (cooked and cut into small pieces)
1 1/2 quarts of iguana broth (or chicken broth)
2 Chicken bouillon cubes
1 Clove of garlic
1 Tomato, coarsely chopped
1 Onion, studded with 3 cloves
1 Green Pepper, quartered
1/4 small Cabbage
1 tsp Cumin
1 dash Nutmeg
Salt and Pepper
2 oz Vermicelli
Instructions: Prepare chicken broth in heavy kettle, add garlic, leek, tomato, onion, green pepper and cabbage. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for thirty minutes. Add the iguana, and simmer an additional half hour, or until the meat is tender. Remove from the fire. Strain broth and keep but discard the vegetables.
Return the broth to the fire and add cumin, nutmeg, vermicelli and salt and pepper. Simmer for about five minutes until the vermicelli is tender. Add the iguana and heat thoroughly. Serve piping hot with Funchi (Corn meal mush).
Compiled from Fiery Foods & Barbecue
2 pounds iguana meat, cut into large chunks
Juice of 1 lime
3 cups water
1 cup coconut milk
10 small potatoes, diced
3 tomatoes, chopped
3 bell peppers, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 cup noodles, such as macaroni
2 bay leaves
½ teaspoon oregano
1 sprig parsley
1 sprig thyme
3 stalks celery, cut into ½ inch pieces
2 Habanero chiles, seeds and stems removed, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
1 oz whiskey of choice
Instructions: In a bowl, toss the meat with the lime juice. Cover and while the meat is marinating, combine all the remaining ingredients, except for the whiskey, in a large pot or stock pot, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover, and cook over low heat for 45 minutes.
Add the marinated meat, adjust the consistency if necessary, cover and cook over low heat for an hour. Just before serving, add the shot of whiskey and stir well. For additional research and recipes, check out this UF/IFAS blog.