Soup in Nicaragua is a bit of an oxymoron. The tropical country is perpetually hot and humid, but every weekend—no matter how heated it gets—hoards of Nicas will reliably head to their favorite soup place for a bowl. They say it’s a typical weekend meal, perfect for after church. But really, it’s just an ideal hangover meal.
Gallina, or hen, soup is great; nearly its entire corpse is served in the bowl. (The head and feet, thankfully, are omitted.) Beef with crab is another popular variety. All soup is served with chunks of starchy root vegetables like carrots and potatoes. A large serving goes for about 100 cordobas, or roughly $4.
And if the restaurant has garrobo, or iguana, you can rest assured that they will eventually run out of it. Iguana broth is widely popular as a hangover cure and as an aphrodisiac. It’s especially beloved during the days preceding Easter.
Iguana, go figure, is Lent-friendly.
“Iguanas are a protected species in Nicaragua. We only eat the males so that the females can still lay eggs,” says chef Oscar Carrion of El Silencio Restaurant in Leon. Carrion tells me that he learned how to prepare iguana from his grandmother. At El Silencio, you can get lizard in soup, fried, or grilled whole.
I’m in the kitchen and I watch as Carrion pulls out a headless, bloody iguana from a plastic bag. It’s been skinned already; I have one of the last orders of the day.
“Iguana is very limited,” owner Johanna Araoz says. “We only get four or three a day.”
Carrion slices off the edge of the tail, and cuts the lizard in half on its vertical axis. He begins cutting the vegetables.
There are a lot of contradictions to lizard consumption in Nicaragua. Iguana hunting is prohibited between January and April each year, though the law is waived if the lizards are kept for food. In 2014, the Nicaraguan government began urging citizens to consume and farm iguana in response to drought and dwindling livestock.
But in certain places, like at the ranger station at Volcán Pilas El Hoyo Natural Reserve near the city of Leon, there’s a rehabilitation station set up by locals to help boost the dwindling iguana population. They breed the lizards in makeshift pens and set them free in the wild once they mature.
It seems that though there are restrictions to eating iguana, those limits are simply symbolic.
At El Silencio, the iguana soup comes out in a large bowl topped with pepper, mint, onions, tomato, carrots, and chayote. I take a sip. There’s a heavy chicken flavor.
My Nicaraguan friends tell me that a lot of places add in chicken powder because lizard doesn’t have a strong taste. I see bits of noodles floating on top—as if someone took a cheap can of chicken noodle soup and dumped it in.
But like a lot of other reptiles, iguana tastes like chicken. There are subtle differences, of course. Its texture is a bit more rubbery and it’s sweeter than poultry. There isn’t much meat to iguana; my lizard was rather small. Heavy vegetables anchor the soup. The meatiest part of the entire dish is the base of the iguana tail. But even that, within seconds, disappears in a couple of bites.
Iguana consumption is mostly traditional. Garrobo soup, I’m told, is falling out of vogue among young folks. Iguana is mostly loved by older Nicaraguan men for its supposed sexual-boosting properties. Folklore says that it’s also supposed to help with strength and endurance.
“Iguanas are threatened throughout the world. Why do you still serve them?” I ask Araoz at the end of the meal.
“We don’t buy a lot. If we get a big one, we’ll cut it in half and make two dishes out of it,” she says kindly. “I feel bad, yes. But I have a business to run.”