The Evolution Of Icelandic Food: The Role Of Fish

Apart from salting fish, fish in Iceland was historically dried. And harðfiskur is still a popular snack.

The Evolution Of Icelandic Food: The Role Of Fish

Once the Icelanders fish their fish, much of it is exported. But what happens to the fish that stays in Iceland, and is then eaten? This time around, we want to talk about the food culture in Iceland, specifically the evolution of Icelandic food, and the role that fish has played in it throughout the years. The story takes us from a near-dependency on dried to the first recipe books to a full range of exquisite delights. Here goes!

The windy climate in Iceland is ideal for drying fish!

Dried Fish For The Win

The Icelander’s ability to catch fish played an enormous part in their ability to survive in this difficult land. The oceans give plenty where the land gives comparatively little. But how to preserve it? This has always been the ultimate, life or death question, but the Icelanders came up with with some rather ingenious but also some rather simple ways to preserve their food: one of them was quite simply to dry it.

Apart from salting fish, fish in Iceland was historically dried; and it is easy to see why. Dried fish was rarely cooked, which in Iceland where fuel is very precious. The climate in Iceland did not facilitate freezing because the temperatures were so variable; the windy climate in Iceland, as it turns out, is ideal for drying.

How was it eaten, in the old days? When the fish was finally served, it was beaten to make it softer to chew (thankfully, dried fish in Iceland comes pre-beaten, FYI). Then, it was eaten with large amounts of butter and rye bread. Although people are more selective with which parts of the fish they eat nowadays, during the settlement period nothing would have been wasted. The roots and stalks of the Angelica, native to Iceland, were boiled and then buttered and eaten as vegetables, often with dried fish.

Dried fish was lightweight, easy to store and kept for long periods of time without going bad. A dried fillet of fish can lose up to 80% of its weight and retain all of its nutritional content. The fish was landed, gutted and hung out on racks. To this day in Iceland, fish is still hung in this way. Not only this, but dried haddock continues to be enjoyed in Iceland to this day, and is not the reserve of tourist delicacy by any means!

Cookbooks: The Seeds Of A Growing Culinary Culture

Of course, it wasn’t all about dried fish. Fish was prepared in different ways, but the point here is to establish how far things have come and how much they have changed. So how did the Icelanders put together entire meals, then? How did people learn to cook, and move away from the most basic of recipes? The cookbooks (primarily of Danish origin) were key. The turn of the seventeenth century saw the publication of  Einfalt matreiðsluvasakver fyrir heldri manna húsfreyjur (A Simple Cookery Notebook for Gentlewomen).

Later, a second more substantial work, Ný matreiðslubók ásamt ávísun um litun, þvott o.fl. (A New Cookbook, With Instructions on Dyeing, Washing, and More) was published in 1858. As previously mentioned, these works were heavily inspired by Danish customs, with many of the recipes (and their respective ingredients) being far out of the reach of everyday, working people.

Out of all the Icelandic cookbooks, the most common by far is Helga Sigurðardóttir’s Matur og drykkur (Food and Drink). First published in 1947, it can be found in nearly every Icelandic household and kitchen, and its treasured recipes represent an essential piece of cultural heritage.

One can find all manner of fish recipes in these cookbooks, and if you ever wanted a true memento of your trip to Iceland, one of these cookbooks would be a great start! They are written in Icelandic though. So you might be able to get two birds with one stone and learn some Icelandic too!

Into The Future

Eventually, knowledge of cooking and the ingredients needed spread out of the cookbooks, and Icelandic cuisine began to draw on the whole world for inspiration.

In the twentieth century, Icelandic food began a complete and categorical overhaul. Iceland started harnessing geothermal technology to build greenhouses where many fruits and vegetable are now grown: bell peppers and cucumbers, mushrooms, tomatoes, and even roses! With time, increasing affluence and an increasing amount of international travel, the culinary tastes of Iceland began to diversify quite rapidly. From the 1960s through to the prosperity of the 1990s and 2000’s brought an emphasis on increasingly exotic (and correspondingly less Icelandic) meal options. That which was seen as traditional became less interesting.

Then, the economic crisis in 2008 put the spotlight back on the more homely, the more local, the more Icelandic, with some remarkable consequences.

Today, chefs are way more experimental with our fish and new methods are being used on old ingredients.

Same Old Fish, With A Fresh, Modern Eye

You will see some fantastic things being done with Icelandic fish, right here in Iceland! The most fascinating part is that the fish hasn’t changed! It all goes to show to the power of new thinking. New methods are being used on old ingredients, and old methods are brought back to life with panache. For extra variety, we even have traditional Icelandic ingredients mixed with exuberant and exotic spices and vegetables from all parts of the world; you really could that it is the best of the local and the best of the local.

Taste the Icelandic Rainbow!

Icelandic food has been known more for its strangeness rather than its colour. The plethora of interesting and innovative restaurants in Reykjavik is a testament to this massive change: ever tried a marinated Cod’s head? Go to Matur go Drykkur and you can! How about Cod chins au gratin? Three Coats has you covered! Recently, Reykjavík and indeed Iceland has earned it’s first Michelin star: Dill! Sushi is also wildly popular, and with Icelandic fish as the main ingredient, you can imagine that the Icelandic sushi is pretty fantastic. You can even sign up for tours focused on Icelandic food culture! However you go about it, There’s more than anybodies fair share of culinary delights in Reykjavík!