Vegan in Iceland
First published December 2015
Thirty years ago I changed my kitchen into a tofu and soy milk factory. I was a vegan in Iceland, and back then the selection of vegan food was poor. Living on a small island between Europe and the USA was almost a miracle back then, and being vegan on that island was definitely a miracle.
The years went by and everything changed. More and more people became vegan or vegetarian and the selection of healthy food increased year by year. Today Iceland is a great place to be vegan and stay on the vegan path.
In the beginning, vegan foods in Iceland were served mainly by a few health food restaurants for their vegan customers. The food consisted of a lot of beans and legumes, rice, and other grains. But today many fine dining restaurants have added vegan options to the menu, using local ingredients that appeal to vegans and non-vegans alike.
Our local specialties include grains, vegetables, herbs and spices. My favorite is dulse (söl), a type of seaweed. Icelanders have been eating dulse for hundreds of years and it is available in almost every supermarket and food market. It is popular for its flavor, and is added to drinks, soups, smoothies and salads to make them more nutritious. It is used as a replacement for salt in low salt dishes. I carry it in my purse and use it as a snack.
Another favorite of mine is turnip (rófa), which, along with potatoes, is one of the most popular vegetables in Iceland. In other countries turnips are used as animal feed, but they are part of Icelandic cuisine–served baked, raw, cooked, and fermented, but most often simply cooked and mashed. I slice them thinly and eat them raw in tacos, or use a spiralizer to make them into shreds of
Wild crowberries (krækiber) are Icelandic superfoods. In the autumn we go berry picking and pick as many crowberries as possible. We make crowberry syrup and juice as well as jam, but crowberries are most popular eaten raw as a snack or used in similar ways to our wild blueberries. Mother Nature has wisely supplied Iceland with these small berries filled with vitamin C and iron, a true treasure in our Nordic environment where fruit is not easily grown.
Wild blueberries (aðalbláber), like crowberries, are very popular to pick in the autumn. Some restaurants have their own “picker” who supplies them with those almost-black berries that taste like they are from another world.
Wild thyme (blóðberg) and caraway seeds (kúmen) are our special spices. Both grow wild and Icelandic people have their favorite spots to pick them. Wild thyme is used to make herbal tea and is a favorite of naturopaths who believe in its healing ability and add it to remedies. Wild thyme is used in baked dishes, soups and stews. It is very easy to find and pick, but if you hope to pick wild caraway, the seeds of which are used in bread and other baked goods, you may have to ask the locals where to find it.
Icelandic moss (fjallagrös) is another of our treasures. It is made up of algae and fungus growing together and is extraordinarily nutritious and healing. It must be soaked before use since it can be extremely bitter; the soaking water is used for watering plants. In the old days, Icelanders cooked moss with milk and honey to make a soup or beverage; vegans now use plant milk and coconut nectar. It is said to be the best prevention for colds and flu, and it is very common to make a soothing herbal tea with Icelandic moss. The moss is also used in bread, sweets and smoothies.
Icelandic barley (bankabygg) is a very popular ingredient in vegan burgers, stews, porridge, breads, sides and salads. It is also possible to find raw organic barley grass shoots in health food shops and restaurants.
Wild sorrel (villtur jarpir) is every child’s favorite in Iceland. It grows all over and has a special and tempting sour taste. Picking it wild in the summertime is a healthy child’s habit. Chefs love to use it in pesto and salads, and I make a beautiful vegan pesto that everyone loves.
In modern Iceland we use geothermal energy in greenhouses to grow vegetables and fruit all year round. Cucumbers, red and green bell peppers, and many types of tomatoes are the most common vegetables, and strawberries are available most of the time. Some of us are also growing bananas, coffee, cacao beans and other exotic plants in our greenhouses. It’s exciting to have a wide variety of fruits and vegetables available, but the wild local foods are what Icelanders cherish, and what make our cuisine unique.