Learning About Iceland via Food

As someone who really enjoys cooking and also really enjoys eating, I find that my travels to one place or another often involve a fair amount of regional cuisine sampling. I think it really helps you to get to know a place by trying out some of the local food. So, I ate gemischte frühstück (large breakfast) in Germany, Smørrebrød in Copenhagen, poutine in Toronto (I know, it’s a Quebecois thing, but we didn’t make it that far), and raw herring with onions sold from a streetcart in Amsterdam, to name a few. Here in Iceland, I’ve been doing a great deal of cuisine sampling, of course, but am also now venturing into Icelandic cooking with some very tasty results.

My foray into Icelandic cuisine has been mainly directed by several sources–the website Jo’s Icelandic Recipes, for one, and also Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir’s Icelandic Food & Cookery, an English-language version of one of Nanna’s paired down Icelandic cookbooks, which I just can’t recommend highly enough. Nanna is an award-winning author of many Icelandic cookbooks, and when I found her English cookbook on the library shelf just next to several of her other beautiful, and incredibly extensive cookbooks in Icelandic (with sweet titles like Matarást, or Food Love), I knew I had found a winner.

The only possible complaint I have about this cookbook is that there are no pictures, which would be really helpful for someone unfamiliar with Icelandic cooking, as I am. But what Nanna’s book lacks in photos it more than makes up for with an historical introduction to Icelandic food and cooking, as well as neat little sociological tidbits throughout her recipes, an extensive glossary of Icelandic ingredients, and a section dedicated to “festive food holidays.” The writing is straightforward and descriptive, the recipes are presented simply and with very little fuss, and she includes little personal anecdotes which really give you a sense of not only Icelandic cooking, but also how much this country has changed over the last 60 years or so. A few quick examples:

  • Introducing her recipe for elbow macaroni soup (a sweet, milk-based dessert soup, of which there are many in Icelandic cooking): “This was virtually the only form of pasta I encountered before my tenth birthday–using macaroni for anything other than a sweet dish would have been considered a revolutionary idea.”
  • About Þorrablót, the yearly celebrations in which large quantities of not entirely appetizing traditional dishes (at least for contemporary palates) are served: “The present-day catered Þorrablót is partly an invention of a Reykjavík restaurant owner in the 1950s–he thought there might be a market for traditional and disappearing Icelandic food that had never been served in restaurants before.”
  • “Icelanders have never been fond of herring and most of them will only eat it marinated or in salads.During the early part of the twentieth century, efforts were made to teach people to appreciate the fish, which was being caught in huge quantities by Icelandic boats…Helga Sigurðardóttir says in Matur og drykur: “Icelandic housewives, it is our duty to ensure that people eat more herring than they do now…”
  • “It was in the 1960s that Icelanders began to travel abroad, and cooking trends from foreign, but not exotic, countries became more evident. These were the “shrimp cocktail” years of the western world and Iceland was no exception…Icelanders were slowly learning to eat vegetable salads…rice and spaghetti were beginning to be seen, largely as additions to, not replacements for, the ubiquitous potatoes. Spaghetti was mostly served in a so-called “Italian sauce,” usually a béchamel sauce with some tomato paste or ketchup added.”
  • “The first pizza parlor was opened in 1969 but did not survive long. Just a few years later, most people were familiar with pizzas and even knew how to make them. These early homemade pizzas were usually covered with a thick layer of ground meat, ketchup, canned mushrooms, pineapple chunks, and grated cheese. Hamburgers invaded roadside shops. They were fried to death, often served with a pineapple slice and a fried egg, and were almost always eaten with a knife and fork.”

I could add so many more of these tidbits, but then I’d basically be transcribing her book. I’ve basically read the whole thing from start to finish now, and it has been really edifying.

2 thoughts on “Learning About Iceland via Food

  1. I just want to read this book cover to cover. Just finished Julia Child’s My Life in France, which taught me a bit about French food and a great deal more about mid century American food. That shit is mad interesting.

    Sidenote– so glad the actual cooking is going well, too! More on that, please 🙂

  2. Oh, it is so good–if you get a chance, I think you would enjoy it. (I should really finally read a Julia Child, too…) I just made her steamed rye bread, which is really, dense dark rye bread slow-steam cooked in an oven for 12 hours (replicating the bread that used to be cooked by submerging pots in hot springs), so I’ll have more food-related tales soon!

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