It has recently come to light that there are now fewer sheep in Iceland than there were over 100 years ago. It’s highly unlikely, but there may come a time when there are no more sheep in Iceland. It also must be said that people who don’t eat lamb, or any kind of meat, are missing out on a lot of traditional Icelandic dishes, and that includes that classic Icelandic staple: íslensk kjötsúpa (literally “Icelandic meat soup”), a hearty blend of Icelandic lamb meat, root veggies, herbs and broth.
With that in mind, I’m here to show you how to make kjötsúpa without using any animal products at all. If you want a recipe with exact measurements, well, too bad. That’s not the way this girl cooks. Fortunately, kjötsúpa is the kind of thing where you don’t really need exact measurements. It’s soup. If it’s too strong, add more water; if it’s not strong enough, reduce it some more or add more stuff to it. It’s kind of hard to screw up soup.
Step one: making seitan
The meat substitute we’re going to use here is seitan, which is basically wheat gluten, so if you’re allergic to gluten, this recipe is not for you.
Seitan has been a staple meat substitute in many Asian cultures for centuries. It’s not a recent fad. It’s also cheap and easy to make, provided you’re a patient person. All you need is white flour, water and time.
First, you need to mix your flour and water. For best results, use a 3 to 1 ratio of flour to water. So if you use six cups (816g) of flour, you’re going to mix that with two cups (568mL) of water. Mix them together and knead it into a nice, consistent, big ol’ ball of dough, then put the dough ball in a large bowl completely covered with cold water. Let that baby soak for at least two hours.
Now comes the fun part. Dump the dough ball into a colander in your sink, and begin rinsing the dough under slightly colder than lukewarm running water while squeezing, pulling, stretching, and squishing the dough ball. Within minutes, you’ll notice the starch begin to wash away. Keep squishing and working the dough under the water. It’s going to significantly reduce in size, and change texture, becoming something like a stretchy, spongy blob.
Eventually, it’s going to look like a springy mass that’s about a fourth the size of your original dough ball. This is wheat gluten. When the water coming out the bottom of the colander and the water you see when you squeeze the gluten is mostly clear, you’re ready for the next step: the flavour.
Step two: making seitan taste like lamb
At this point, the gluten doesn’t really taste like anything. It needs to be imbued with flavour, and in this case, we need it to taste like lamb. How do you make something taste like lamb when there are no sheep in the country?
For this, we’re going to use these ingredients: one mushroom stock cube, a palmful each of dried rosemary, garlic powder, and smoked paprika, just a light splash of white vinegar, a generous splash of soy sauce, and a teaspoon of MSG (which you can get in any Asian food market in town) in 1.5L of boiling water.
“Whoah, hang on, MSG?,” you say. “Isn’t that stuff dangerous?” No, it absolutely isn’t. The hysteria around MSG is completely unfounded in science, but probably has a lot to do with anti-Asian racism. It makes stuff taste savory. Trust me on this.
Now, we want the gluten to have the consistency of slow-boiled lamb meat, so instead of pressing the gluten, as you would normally do for making seitan, pull it apart into bite-sized chunks. Drop these chunks into your boiling broth, then reduce it to a light simmer, and let it simmer for an hour.
Step three: making the soup
It’s at this point that we get to the traditional side of kjötsúpa: the veggies. For this, you’ll need: five peeled and chopped Icelandic (read: small) potatoes, or one big one; one peeled and chopped rutabaga, two peeled and chopped decent-sized carrots, one peeled and chopped white onion, some chopped fresh parsley, and a generous helping of Icelandic súpujurtir, i.e., soup herbs, which are really just dried up bits of various herbs and veggies. If you live in Iceland, you can find these in any grocery store. If you don’t live in Iceland, you’ll likely be able to find a close equivalent wherever you live.
Personally, I like to chop the veggies into fairly big chunks. They have more flavour this way, and it makes soup more like “food floating in broth” rather than “broth with tiny bits of stuff in it”.
Bring a litre and a half of water to a boil. At this point, the seitan should only be in like half a litre of broth, so you can just pour the broth and seitan directly into the pot, then dump in your soup veggies, parsley and súpujurtir. Reduce to a medium simmer and let it cook for 45 minutes.
Throughout this process, keep tasting your soup. As said before, you can always add more water if it’s too strong, but you can also add another half of a mushroom stock cube if it isn’t strong enough.
Step four: serve and enjoy
Now you’re ready to dish out this soup into a bowl and enjoy. This recipe can serve anywhere from four to six regular people, or two to three hungry people. Add some black pepper and salt to each bowl, and garnish with a sprig of fresh parsley for added pizzazz.
One of the things they don’t tell you about non-animal analogues of animal-based dishes is it’s not going to taste exactly like the “real” thing. It might not even taste very close. But it’s going to taste good. So I don’t wanna hear that this isn’t how your grandma makes kjötsúpa. Block me on Twitter, send an angry email, report me to MAST, I don’t care. For those who don’t eat animal stuff, this Icelandic classic can now be accessible to you. And when the day comes when there are no more sheep in Iceland, this may be the definitive recipe for making kjötsúpa. You can thank me then.
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