The JT Insider Food Guide: Iceland
Icelandic TV chef Siggi Hall talks to us about experiencing the best of the island’s eats.
As one of Iceland’s best known chefs, Siggi Hall rose to fame by hosting his own long-running TV cooking show and appearing on other popular programmes in the United States, Canada and Europe. Siggi is also a certified Master Chef, an official ambassador of New Nordic cuisine and the author of two best-selling cookbooks. The chef’s esteemed restaurant, simply named Siggi Hall, is located in Reykjavik.
Siggi Hall’s tips to discovering Iceland’s cuisine
Food of the nation
‘From an island that’s a long distance from any other nations, Icelanders – through history – have become very sustainable with food, developing an individual style of cooking. Before, the country was poor so food was just a source of survival, but early last century things changed.
Even though Iceland still wasn’t rich or flamboyant with food, people started to cook with variety, flavour and different styles in mind. It was always based on lamb and fish, either fresh or salted, with more variation in vegetables and fruit. We started to grow tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers in geothermal greenhouses.’
‘There still wasn’t any direct outside influence but of course people started to travel and see different things, while other people of foreign origin moved to Iceland. Ideas were floating around, which resulted in the creation of new dishes; always using our main ingredients, remaining very Icelandic with the freshness of produce from the surrounding environment.’
‘We can surely say that Iceland’s national dish is the roasted lamb leg or saddle, typically served on weekends with traditional rhubarb compote, peas and red cabbage. In the remote parts of Iceland people still tend to eat traditional food, but Reykjavik and other large towns in Iceland have become more modern.’
Seabirds, waterfowl, salmon and trout are other popular ingredients in Iceland, as well as the use of Icelandic moss, wild mushrooms, herbs and berries. Aside from dried or cured meat and fish, fermentation is used to produce delicacies such as hákarl; fermented and cured shark. Icelandic sweets include the fried pastry snack klenät and the Icelandic pastry vinarbraud.
Top dishes to try
‘Find a seafood restaurant with really fresh fish – we mostly have cod or haddock but today ling is coming in strongly – or even buy the fish at a fishmonger’s to cook it yourself, if you have the opportunity to do so.
It’s important that the fish is very fresh; Icelanders are really concerned about that. Dine on Icelandic lamb dishes, such as roast lamb and lamb soup, and try skyr [a dairy product that’s similar to yoghurt and traditionally eaten with milk and a sprinkling of sugar].’
“Try the salted cod, sold at the market, the langoustine tails from the southern coast of Iceland, and Icelandic herring, which is the best in the world.”
‘Remember that the best butter in the world is Icelandic, and don’t miss flatkökur, a flat farm style rye bread [sometimes containing Icelandic moss] with smoked lamb [named hangikjot and a typical festive food].
Try the salted cod, sold at the market, the langoustine tails from the southern coast of Iceland, and Icelandic herring, which is the best in the world. All of those dishes originate from the old Icelandic farms and fishermen.’
‘Today Icelanders are very Nordic in their drinking habits with beer, schnapps [Brennivín is Iceland’s herb-infused liquor that’s distilled from potatoes] and, of course, wine.’
The island imports this wine but one variety that’s produced in Iceland is kvoldsol, a wine that’s made in the coastal region from crowberries, rhubarb, blueberries and Icelandic herbs.
‘That would have to be the New Nordic kitchen style, which fits very well into the Icelandic cuisine and mentality, as all products are from local fisherman, farmers and growers. On the other hand, we see a lot of pizza and burger places here – hamburgers were common in Iceland long before they were in Europe due to the American forces being based here after World War Two. The country was full of American service people and Icelanders were influenced by listening to their radio and television stations.’
‘Head to Reykjavik’s downtown area, around 101, which is where all the bars, restaurant and people are.’
This is also the location of restaurant Siggi Hall (Ordinstorg Thorsgata 1, Reykjavik 101).
Celebrating Iceland’s cuisine
The Food and Fun Festival
Siggi Hall is one of the co-founders of this culinary event hosted in Reykjavik each year. The festival aims to combine top Icelandic cuisine with outdoor adventure and the city’s nightlife. World acclaimed chefs step into the kitchens of the city’s top restaurants to create unique Icelandic menus, then on the festival’s final day these chefs compete against each other by cooking up their own innovative Icelandic three-course meal.
The festival take place in February and March, but check the website for updates.
This mid-winter nationalistic festival, taking place between mid January and mid February, is celebrated with a feast called porramatur, a selection of Icelandic foods such as cured meat and fish, rye bread and the herb-infused schnapps brennivín. Traditionally, speeches are given and poems are recited during the meal.