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Yes, I’ve eaten capybaras and iguanas during Lent



Daniel Esparza - published on 03/27/18

In Venezuela, fish is not the only thing you can eat on Fridays during Lent.

“While Catholics are instructed to abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent, it doesn’t mean fish is the only option. In fact, there are many different aquatic animals and foods derived from animals that are allowed.” – “This is what you can eat on Friday’s during Lent,” Aleteia

Yes, I’ve had Amazonian gigantic rodents and iguanas for supper during Lent. And they’re delicious. And gator. Once. But that was in Florida.

For the llaneros – cattle herders living in the Llanos grasslands in central and western Venezuela since Andalusian friars settled in those lands in 1548 – chigüires, despite being quite abundant (being rodents, they breed like bunnies) are not necessarily on everyone’s menu.

It goes without saying that llaneros – like any other cowboys – prefer steak.

That is, until Lent arrives.

Capybaras taste like fish

The Venezuelan plains are generous when it comes to water sources. In its many rivers, lagoons, creeks, kills, and streams, capybaras –as chigüires are better known elsewhere – can be found by the hundreds. Being semiaquatic mammals, these “water hogs” – that’s what hydrochaerus translates to  – are not only excellent swimmers, capable of spending five minutes underwater evading predators, but are also able to run on land with ease. In fact, they are fast as horses, which makes hunting for them the South American version of the very British fox hunt, although no hounds or classic attires are required. And yes, Lent is capybara hunting season: as meat is forbidden, llaneros turn to capybara to fulfill both religious and nutritional requirements.

Capybara  does “taste like fish,” but this is only partially true. Its taste might somehow resemble that of classic Portuguese cod – if you haven’t tried bacalhau, then you might want to give capybara a try. If you have tried it and didn’t like it, then stay away from capybara. Both capybara and cod are traditionally preserved in salt, and then soaked in water for several hours to un-salt it and tenderize it. The traditional llanero recipe, called pisillo de chigüire – there is also pisillo de venado, which is made with venison instead – has often been referred to as “the humblest of all Venezuelan recipes,” maybe because of its simplicity. Chigüire meat is boiled with onions, then shredded – think of your classic pulled pork – and then slowly stewed with minced garlic, bell peppers, onions, tomatoes, and lard.

But don’t let its humbleness fool you. Pisillo is so good you feel guilty you’re having it for Lent.

Tradition claims “Padre Sojo, a famous Venezuelan priest, went to Italy at the end of the 18th century and obtained a papal bull approving the capybara for Lenten dining because of its amphibious habits.”

Now, tasty as pisillo might be, Maracuchos (the informal, common demonym for those born in Maracaibo) will always come up with something bigger and better. And greasier. And tastier. And, again, bigger. Being a land of cattle and oil, you can think of Zulia (the state Maracaibo is the capital city of) as your Venezuelan Texas.

(Actually, Citgo is Venezuelan.)

Maracaibo – don’t let non-Maracuchos tell you otherwise – is the gastronomical Mecca of the country. True, the delicate contrast of sweet and salty flavors one finds in mantuano food (Caraquenian traditional colonial cuisine) is unmatched in the rest of the country. Eastern Venezuelans combine West Indies gastronomy with a rich seafood tradition that can be summed up in two words: shark curry. When not in the mood for deep-fried-stuff-covered-in-mayo-and-cheese (that is, again, during Lent), Maracuchos bring out the big guns: they stew whatever you put their way in a thick coconut milk sauce.

Iguanas are delicious in coconut milk

Even iguanas. In fact, iguanas are as abundant in northwestern Venezuela (where Maracaibo is) as capybaras are in the grasslands.

Maracucho coconut stew applies to every protein you can think of: chivo en coco (goat coconut stew), pollo en coco (chicken), mojito en coco (nope, not a rum-based cocktail: it’s shredded grilled fishstewed in coconut sauce), conejo en coco (rabbit), and, sure, iguana en coco. The list could go on and on in a Bubba-telling-Gump-everything-you-can-do-with-shrimp kind of way. Food en coco is so good and so popular that when someone is really good at something, Maracuchos would say: “Arquímedes? Arquímedes is the **** en coco!”

(And yes: Greek names are quite common in Maracaibo. You’ll meet a lot of Epaminondas, Arístides, Aristóteles, and the like.)

Once washed with lemon juice and boiled, iguana meat is shredded but, unlike capybara, it’s not salted. Instead, it will go right into the pot, where the sofrito – a classic stew base made with minced garlic, shallots, bell peppers, onions, cumin, oregano, and annatto, on either lard or olive oil – should be ready. Once the iguana meat has been there for five minutes, coconut milk makes its triumphant entrance.

When compared to iguana en coco, some would say pisillo is as insipid as a rice cracker. Of course, this is sheer exaggeration. But Maracuchos can exaggerate. Even during Lent.

Now, capybara en coco, that I’ve never tried. Anyhow, if in doubt, the USCCB gives a more complete explanation of what constitutes “meat.”

Abstinence laws consider that meat comes only from animals such as chickens, cows, sheep or pigs — all of which live on land. Birds are also considered meat. Abstinence does not include meat juices and liquid foods made from meat. Thus, such foods as chicken broth, consomme, soups cooked or flavored with meat, meat gravies or sauces, as well as seasonings or condiments made from animal fat are technically not forbidden. However, moral theologians have traditionally taught that we should abstain from all animal-derived products (except foods such as gelatin, butter, cheese and eggs, which do not have any meat taste). Fish are a different category of animal. Salt and freshwater species of fish, amphibians, reptiles (cold-blooded animals), and shellfish are permitted.

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