Friday, March 4, 2011

Eating Jacaré - Brazil's Farmed Alligator Meat

The swampy wetlands of southwestern Brazil known as the Pantanal are home to the world's largest single crocodilian population. These reptiles are called jacaré (pronounced zha-ka-RAY) in Portuguese, and it's estimated that there are up to 10 million of them living in the rivers and swamps of the Pantanal. Scientifically speaking they are a species of caiman, related to alligators and crocodiles but slightly different from either of those groups. Their scientific name is Caiman yacare and they are called Yacare Caimans in English.

Caimans tend to be smaller than their alligator or crocodile cousins, reaching 2 to 2.5 meters in adulthood. This smaller stature, fortunately, means they aren't large enough to harm or consume humans. They prey primarily on fish and birds and in turn are prey for jaguars and anacondas. As their meat is delicious and very healthy, they are also beginning to be "preyed upon" by humans who are looking for something exotic to put on the dinner table. Jacarés can successfully be grown in captivity, and the farming of jacarés for their meat is a growing business in the Pantanal. The practice is environmentally sustainable, and provides much-needed income to local inhabitants. It also is beginning to provide a new and exotic ingredient for chefs in the region and elsewhere in Brazil.

Jacaré is becoming a star attraction on restaurant menus in all major cities of Brazil, as chefs and nutritionists discover its nutritional and gastronomic qualities. The meat is very low in fat and cholesterol, and extremely high in protein. It's mild yet distinctive flavor takes well to flavorings, rubs and sauces and adapts itself to many Brazilian and non-Brazilian meat recipes. The chart below shows how many different cuts of meat come from a single jacaré and how little of the animal goes to waste. Additionally, there is great economic value in the skin of the animal, so the intense utilization of all parts of the animal further increase its environmental sustainability.

Alligator meat is available fresh in certain parts of the USA, notably Louisiana and Florida, and is available frozen in gourmet meat shops elsewhere in North America. In the next post on Flavors of Brazil, I'll print some recipes for jacaré that have been developed recently to bring this meat into the mainstream of contemporary Brazilian cuisine. Although jacaré and alligator are not exactly the same species, any recipe for one can successfully be made with the other.

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