Notes on eating iguana soup in Subtiava

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“It’s just chicken,” the lady behind a fresh food stand assures me with a wink, as she bags two freshly killed iguana, along with their eggs. Teresa and I balk, but only for a moment. We have a mission to complete: purchase all the ingredients for sopa de garroba— or, iguana soup.

Our guide, Héctor, helps us navigate El Mercado Central, the main food market in León, stopping to chat with the ladies who run the various fruit and vegetable stands. He gives us pinches of pinolillo, a mixture of cornmeal and cacao that when mixed with water or milk transforms into the traditional Nicaraguan drink.

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From the Mercado we jump on a crowded city bus and ride down Calle Ruben Dario to Subtiava, a centuries-old neighborhood where the descendants of pre-Hispanic people are trying to maintain their distinct identity and land.

Once Spanish conquistadors planted their flag in Nicaragua, they constructed the city of León, on the outskirts of Subtiava. Conflict between the two communities transformed Subtiava, with indigenous resistance and preservation a driving force in the community as others have sought to integrate it into León.  My project this week is to immerse myself in Subtiava to discover how the community as changed and whether it is losing its native traditions. I hold onto a bus pole, each bump in the rode jostling me into fellow riders, as I hold onto our bag of ingredients and watch the city unfurl out the window.

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My interest in investigating Subtiava led me to take Héctor’s tour, a cooking workshop in Subtiava, despite my initial worry that this type of socio-cultural tourism would tokenize a marginalized people. I wanted to integrate myself into the community, not artificially insert myself into the lives of a family out of novel experiential whimsy.

But once off the bus, the busy city streets of León fall away as Héctor, Teresa and I walk deeper into Subtiava, a neighborhood more tranquil and residential than the rest of the city.  A recent law school graduate who gives socio-cultural tours on the side, Héctor is a dam of information about to burst. His love for his country is apparent as he spouts stories, stopping to show us a home in Subtiava that Fidel Castro once visited, or to shake down an almond fruit straight from the tree for us to try. The skin is tough to bite into, with sour fruit encasing the nut.

We reach our final destination, the home of Pedro Berbis, a Subtiava farmer who lives in the outskirts of the neighborhood. His daughter-in-law Claudia teaches us how to prepare the iguana soup, a “soup that could raise the dead.” We compare the ingredients of different soups in the United States with the ingredients boiling in our pot on a wood-fired outdoor stove.

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I chat with Pedro about the history of Subtiava as we eat grapefruit that Héctor gathered from a tree next to the kitchen. While their house is very modest, the land is rich, with fruit and tamarind trees dispersed across the yard. Claudia’s children and nieces get some playtime in before Denis, Pedro’s son and car mechanic, takes them all to school on his motorcycle.

Tasting iguana for the first time, I have to admit it does taste a bit like chicken.

Mariela Mannion is one of 10 Brown students who are spending this year’s spring break in Nicaragua learning how to be foreign correspondents under the leadership of former NYT reporter Stephen Kinzer. You can follow all their adventures here.

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