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How do you like your iguana?

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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.


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