WASHINGTON — On a blustery afternoon, a delivery truck creeps through a cluster of ethnic food warehouses in northeast Washington and parks by the section of dock belonging to Distribuidora Cuscatlan, an importer of foods from El Salvador.
Frank Rodriguez, Cuscatlan's manager, walks past crates of rice before stepping into a gargantuan stainless-steel freezer. He opens a box that contains what many consider a culinary delicacy - iguana.
For centuries, iguana has been consumed throughout Central America; now it's showing up on a small but growing number of North American dinner tables.
But El Salvadoran entrepreneurs and US businessmen like Mr. Rodriguez - who supplies iguana to 60 markets in the Washington area - are doing more than providing a fondly remembered "taste of home" for Latinos now living in the US.
The budding market is also improving life in El Salvador. Raising iguanas on farms for export provides much-needed jobs, and it allows food to be grown while keeping the tropical rain forest intact. The industry even aids in rebuilding wild iguana populations, since many iguana farms periodically release part of their stock into the wild.
The increasing availability of iguana meat is due to several factors, including its reputation among Central Americans as a cure-all for everything from colds to poor sexual performance.
"People believe iguana meat does many things," says Alicia Chicas, a Salvadoran immigrant who manages a small market in southern Maryland. "That's why they are willing to pay."
Ms. Chicas thinks that one reason iguana has become easier to obtain in the US is that the Salvadoran community here has become wealthier over the years and able to afford it.
The meat is said to have a taste similar to chicken, but a bit stronger and tougher. At $14 a pound (retail), or about $50 for the average purchase, it isn't for ordinary suppers. Still, "the demand for them is higher than we can provide," Rodriguez says.
Iguanas live principally on fruits, flowers, and leaves. Once abundant through many parts of Central America, the tropical lizard's populations have suffered from overhunting and habitat destruction, causing the Salvadoran government, among others, to clamp down on hunting them.
That's where iguana farms can help. Instead of reducing the wild population, ranchers take advantage of the fact that the reptiles typically live 40 to 50 feet above the ground in rain forests. Farms hatch iguanas from eggs, grow them in a controlled environment for seven months, and then release them into forested areas on the farm. That way, local residents don't have to cut down trees to raise food.
El Salvador's main iguana ranch is in Zacatecoluca, a city of about 30,000 people located in the south-central part of the country. It, like other places, exports both the meat of garrobos (dark-skinned male lizards) and iguanas (green-skinned females), which can now be found next to chorizos and papusas in ethnic stores in the US.
A consistent demand for the meat might spawn a healthy micro-livestock industry in El Salvador that could breed jobs, says René Antonio León Rodríguez, the country's ambassador to the US, in a phone interview. Ambassador León hopes that iguana will join the ranks of ostrich, emu, and bison, other alternative meats vying for an increasing share of Americans' food dollars.
"It's good for your body, it's good for business, and it's good for the environment," he says.
While businesses are beefing up operations to meet what they hope is an expanding North American market, their eyes are also fixed on Asian markets, where consumers accustomed to eating snake wouldn't think twice about sinking their teeth into a garrobo.
"I talked to store owners who told me they sold out of iguana after a newspaper article came out about iguana meat," says León. "But it wasn't people from El Salvador who bought them out. It was Asians."
Iguana entrepreneurs are looking beyond Asia, though, and even beyond markets for frozen meat. León notes that some Salvadoran businesspeople are taking on the hard task of perfecting recipes for canned iguana soup, "which must be made by hand and with a lot of effort."
For this reason, he adds, demand for the soup currently outstrips supply. But it may be some time before cans of spicy iguana soup show up on US grocery shelves, since meeting the demand isn't the only obstacle exporters confront.
"We have iguana soup, but we don't have the proper license to distribute it yet," says Rodriguez of Distribuidora.
He and his father had to wait three years to get a fish and wildlife license from the Food and Drug Administration to distribute frozen iguana meat. But when permission is granted to distribute iguana soup, "we are ready," he promises.