Behind the meat counter at Mercadito Ramos II, Jaime Medina lifted a bag of dark-pink iguana meat to the silver scale. The headless, skinless lizard registered 3.3 pounds. "Forty dollars," Medina said in Spanish.
Since the iguanas began arriving at the Langley Park store last month, Medina, a 23-year-old Salvadoran who runs the store for his father, has sold them at $12.50 per pound to Central Americans hungry for a taste of home. There the meat is a delicacy, a cure-all and an aphrodisiac.
"They are a traditional food," he said. "People eat them when they are ill. They are like a total energy vitamin. People hear about it by word of mouth, and they are buying them."
The pointy-faced lizards are bred on farms in El Salvador, shrink-wrapped and then shipped frozen in cardboard boxes lined with plastic foam. In Central America, those with green scales are called iguanas, and those with the brown scales and tastier meat -- the ones people prefer to eat -- are called garrobos. The meat tastes like chicken but is a little tougher and has less fat.
The brown-scaled iguanas started arriving sporadically last year in about a dozen local Latino grocery stores, a few hundred boxes at a time. They sold out within days, store owners said. "It is very expensive, but once people know we have them, they buy them," said Carlos A. Castro, owner of Todos Hispanic Supermarket in Woodbridge.
Encouraged by the response, ranchers in El Salvador are gearing up for bigger shipments to this region, according to officials from the Salvadoran Embassy.
Mercadito Ramos buys its frozen iguanas for $9 per pound from Distribuidora Cuscatlan Inc., located in a busy enclave of ethnic food distributors in Northeast Washington. Cuscatlan buys the iguanas for $6 per pound directly from ranchers in El Salvador.
At $12.50, the meat sold at Mercadito is pricey, but some say it is worth it. "It's better than Viagra," said Silver Spring resident Herbert Hernandez, 24, who moved here from San Vicente nine years ago.
"If you are feeling ill for a few days and you want to recover quickly, it is the number one vitamin," said Salvadoran Alicia Chicas, 49, manager of Mercadito. "My parents thought it was strange, but one day I was sick. I had asthma. Someone gave me garrobo soup, and it really helped me get better."
At the Mercadito meat counter, Hyattsville resident Yolanda Roque, a Guatemalan with a floppy blond ponytail, glanced past the seasoned fajita meat, Salvadoran chorizo, pescado seco -- a traditional salty dried fish -- and foot-long cow tongue before stopping to read the black-and-white printout that said "Desde El Salvador Garrobo." Translation: Iguana from El Salvador.
Examining the iguana meat, Roque said she had heard from a Salvadoran co-worker at a laundry in Baltimore that it was sold at Mercadito. "I asked a friend to bring me two garrobos from El Salvador, but they didn't allow her to bring them into the U.S.," said Roque, 48, although she fretted over the price. "When I heard Mercadito Ramos was selling them, I decided to come by."
'You Eat That Thing?'
There was a time when iguanas nearly overran El Salvador, roaming the hot, arid streets of the cities and climbing trees along the eastern coast. There were so many iguanas in San Miguel that Salvadorans started calling men from there garroberos, after the iguanas, said Enilson Solano, counselor for economic affairs at the Embassy of El Salvador.
"Most people will look at an iguana and say, 'You eat that thing?' . . . [But] people in El Salvador eat so many," said Castro, who is from San Salvador. "The poor little creatures almost disappeared. That put a damper on consumption in El Salvador. When I was a kid, we could see them everywhere."
Castro, 48 and an animal lover, said he was often the reluctant kid in the bunch when his cousins would go to the Pacific coast to hunt iguanas in caves or trees. They would set traps at cave openings. "At my grandmother's ranch, when they saw an iguana taking sun on high branches, someone would climb the tree and knock them down. They had dogs ready to catch them," Castro said.
"When I was 12, I would go with my cousin to the city. He would hit them with a slingshot. They would fall, and he would eat them. He would cut off the head and legs and would peel off the scales and pull the tough skin back," Castro said.
Traditionally, iguana meat is cut up; mixed with water, tomatoes, potatoes, onion, garlic and traditional Central American herbs; and simmered for two hours, creating a thick stew. Many also like to eat wild iguana eggs with rice.
"My dad, when I was young, used to catch big iguanas with eggs inside," Castro said. "He used to cut them open one inch in the tummy and get the eggs out. They are very delicious. Then he put three stitches in the iguana and let them go."
Mothers fed iguana meat to their sick children, as one would chicken noodle soup. It was also said to cure hangovers and to keep the elderly strong.
Eventually the number of wild iguanas dwindled so much that the El Salvador government made it illegal to catch them.
Salvadoran ranchers first spotted a large iguana export market in the United States about 1993, after American children fell in love with the T. rex and raptors in Steven Spielberg's "Jurassic Park," said the embassy's Solano. But the business of exporting live iguanas to U.S. pet stores peaked years ago.
More recently, the Salvadoran food companies that built processing plants to clean and package iguana meat also have developed massive iguana ranches, Solano said. . Ranchers are gearing up for more exports to the United States.
Salvadoran executive Max Novoa is one of the businessmen who decided to export iguana food products here. Novoa, whose family owns Arrocera San Francisco, which is one of the largest food-manufacturing companies in El Salvador, spent a year working with a food technician to perfect a canned recipe for iguana soup.
"It's very traditional, with vegetables and no preservatives," Novoa said in a telephone interview. "There is a lot of manual processing, regional spices and a lot of [iguana] meat. It's not something you can [mass-produce]. We're bringing a little to start and see how it goes."
The soup, sold under Arrocera's Dona Lisa label, will be distributed by Long Island, N.Y.-based All Foods. Novoa, who splits his time between New York and El Salvador, is part owner of the distribution company. Next month, the canned soup is to begin arriving in stores in the Washington area, which has hundreds of thousands of Central American immigrants and more than 100 Latino grocery stores, and in other cities including San Francisco and New York.
In his country, iguanas are viewed as a "natural energy source," Novoa said. "Its cells have the ability to regenerate easily. If its tail is cut off, it grows back."
"There is some belief that cold-blooded animals purify the blood of hot-blooded animals, like humans," he added.
Novoa has little hope that iguana will appeal to large numbers of native North Americans. Instead, his plan is to ship his iguana soup to Asian countries, where he said people share similar beliefs and tastes regarding reptiles. He is working with a food broker in Hong Kong to export the canned soup to mainland China, where snake is a delicacy.
"Iguana high. They call it the natural Viagra," Novoa said. "There's a market."
Staff writer Luz Lazo contributed to this report.