Iguana tamales, a dish of Holy Week in Oaxaca

Iguana tamales, a peculiar and ancestral dish made with this reptile, is the star food of Holy Week in a town in southern Mexico.

Iguana tamales, a dish of Holy Week in Oaxaca
Iguana is consumed only on Fridays of Lent, and it has to be killed in the church. Image: Pixabay

Iguanas and more iguanas. A peculiar and ancient dish made from this reptile is the star food during Holy Week in the southern Mexican town of Tehuantepec, where one more year they fulfill the tradition of tasting the delicacy. The iguana is part of the gastronomy of this locality in the state of Oaxaca, being a native food that is only consumed during this time and that subsists as a reminiscence and modification of the ancient sacrifices of the native peoples.

In an interview with Efe, Daniel Peña, director of the Culture Council of Tehuantepec, said that this tradition is carried out throughout the Isthmus area, but that this specific town has a greater ritual charge. It is consumed only on Fridays of Lent, and it has to be killed in the church", he tells about the killing of the iguanas to work the dish, a whole rite of twinning.

Also in the church itself is where you prepare the mole-based dish made with pumpkin seed, iguana meat, and eggs, wild tomato, and, of course, the iguanas, which "uncooked are put on the coals" and then start to skin and scale them. Once skinned, they are cooked, split, and introduced into the classic Mexican tamale made with corn dough.

"The dough is placed, two or three pieces of the iguana are placed in. The iguana egg must also be included, and then all this is covered with the mole, and the tamale is wrapped." Then, direct to the pots to cook throughout the night. The preparation is an act of brotherhood and pure altruism that is reproduced as one of the most famous customs of Tehuantepec. "People already know, they have to come and help make the tamales," says Peña.

Once the Holy Week is over, no more iguana is consumed until next year, so the species does not suffer any type of threat due to this. The iguanas "are usually bought in farms" or even if there are neighbors who live near a hill or have a ranch and catch some, these are the ones that are used.

In Mexico, there are around 20 species of iguana, of which 11 are in danger, according to the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), the most prestigious in the Latin American country. This tradition dates from the time of the evangelization that the Dominican friars brought to Tehuantepec after the conquest five centuries ago.

It was from the process of evangelization that this custom was born in which the iguana is changed by the ancient human sacrifices that were made to the gods in pre-Hispanic times. When the iguanas are taken to the church, they are "adorned" with natural flowers on the neck. "That's part of that ancient ritual, (...) that became a symbol of offering to Christianity".

They are consumed in this time also because it is the moment in which they spawn. "It also lends itself to the fact that red meat is not consumed", alluding to Lent. In the city of Juchitán, also in Oaxaca, the feast has its high point on Palm Sunday, when the inhabitants visit pantheons to clean the tombs of their ancestors and eat with them the classic iguana tamales.

The visit to the cemetery is a kind of retribution for the visit that the souls of the dead made them previously, according to the traditions. The iguana is an animal present in the Zapotec culture that predominated in this region in pre-Hispanic times and its figures are often used in the region's pottery, one of the most important in Mexico.