From Iceland — Wake up, Reykjavik!

Wake up, Reykjavik!

Published September 8, 2023

Wake up, Reykjavik!

The dining slumber that afflicts the hospitality industry has got to shake loose

“Ostpaj med murklor” is scribbled on the blackboard in front of me. “What is a cheese pie?” I ask, embarrassed about my lack of knowledge. The chef-waiter at Arla Unika, a Stockholm institution built on all things dairy, shrugs. ‘’It’s like a quiche and we serve it with a mushroom sauce.’’ What arrives, however, is a warm, wobbling hulk of a slice of molten yellow custard, seemingly held in place by sheer will and a buttery tart shell. The “‘mushroom sauce” turned out to be morels – I was expecting buttons. That my friends and I tucked into the pie with gusto is an understatement. We ate with abandon, delighted with the warm savory custard whose nondescript nomenclature had surpassed itself. Moments like these are the highlight of any dining experience; the unexpected joys, the feeling where you get more than you anticipated.

When I got back to Reykjavík, I promptly dove into all things Västerbottenostpaj. The cousin of quiche has a filling of eggy custard with milk, whole eggs, sometimes cream and always Västerbottenost – a sharp aged cheese whose popularity has resulted in shortages in Sweden – all baked in a pastry shell. Internet searches yield quiche- or pie-like variations, but the version I had at Arla Unika stands out. What is otherwise a home-cooked comfort food was elevated to a fine dining experience in a casual café setting, with its prodigious use of technique, underlining what makes restaurant food distinct from home cooking.

If you are wondering why I am waxing eloquent about a cheese pie I ate in Sweden, when we are meant to be talking about Reykjavík, it is because this dish was that push I needed to put my long simmering thoughts into words about the fever of dullness that has gripped the dining scene here.

As a food critic, I eat out more than your average diner. New York Times critic Pete Wells once estimated about 800 meals on the job. Our playgrounds are vastly different, but I suspect the eateries visited runs into the several hundreds, too. And despite the glamorous appeal of trying new places, food writing and food critique is a privileged slog. My own take on it has been to write about places I want more people to go and enjoy for themselves rather than doing slam pieces (which may garner more attention, I am painfully aware of, but resist nonetheless). This is something I learned from my old editor, Kripal Ammanna, at Food Lovers in India, as far back as 2010 – a sentiment Mr. Wells subscribes to as well.

This isn’t about authenticity, but rather about understanding the essence of what makes a particular dish what it is. It is about understanding that rice being a principal ingredient in both doesn’t make risotto and grjónagrautur the same.

Contrast that casual Stockholm lunch with a dinner I had at a recently opened Japanese-Italian restaurant in Reykjavík. I left deeply hurt and, if I’m being honest, angry. Was I expecting a Niko Romito experience by way of Tokyo? Kinda, but with a healthy Nordic reality check. Instead, our table (incidentally all Icelanders with Asian backgrounds) squirmed with discomfort with each new plate. The menu claims heritage from two places firmly rooted in technique and produce vastly different from the other. What we were served was neither Japanese nor Italian and far from a fusion of the two.

Tropes trump technique

The trouble isn’t with this particular restaurant alone. Menus across the country and the recipes of food bloggers appearing on popular websites and in newspapers are a pale imitation of the originals they claim to be a version of. This isn’t about authenticity, but about understanding the essence of what makes a particular dish what it is. It is about understanding that rice being a principal ingredient in both doesn’t make risotto and grjónagrautur the same.

History is rife with erasures, impositions and assimilation of influences. All of these histories, old and new, play out on plates around us — like enslaved West Africans who wove seeds into their hair to literally and figuratively birth a cuisine in a land different from their home; Dalits who remain ostracised under the guise of food purity; and, more recently, the raging debates over syrniki and its Slavic heritage in the background of the Ukrainian war. Closer to home, Icelandic staples from pönnukökur to vínarterta are borne out of both scarcity and trade monopolies imposed by Danish colonisers.

Food is an agent of change and control. It isn’t mere sustenance. What we eat, it is said, tells us who we are. I say what we cook and sell tells us what we value. Given that Iceland is no longer in a phase of scarcity, it would behove those with culinary influence to consider their values.

That the reverence reserved for French haute cuisine isn’t extended to other cuisines is a reality known and possibly even expected, misplaced as it is. Even the most detached home cook would shudder with horror if coriander were suggested in place of tarragon – even as they add bearnaise “extract” to flavour their eggy concoction. But all bets are off when it comes to world cuisines in Iceland. They seem to exist only to inspire jiffy weekday dinners with the convenience of a can of coconut milk or to entice customers with their otherness, as one menu attempted by boldly proclaiming its dipping sauce as “exotik soyasósa.”

In a bid for authenticity, nomenclature has become the stand-in for the actual cooking of the dish. Tropes, rather than technique, seems to be the magic mantra. Sprinkle enough words like soy, sesame, kimchi and kosho, and you’re firmly in Asia. Add coriander and chilli to the mix and you’ve arrived in Mexico! Sprinkle nuts and now you are in “Miðausturland,” an imaginary nation whose actual geographical boundaries are no match for the imaginary ones stretched by local eateries as far out as Northern Africa.

In a bid for authenticity, nomenclature has become the stand in for the actual cooking of the dish. Tropes, instead of techniques, seems to be the magic mantra.

Despite the sophisticated techniques, expensive ingredients and man hours demanded by Asian cuisine, the expectation is that it should be cheap food. In all my years spent eating here, I am yet to see a restaurant claiming to do “Asian” food even attempt velveting, or add tadka to their “dal” (dal without tadka is just boiled lentils, no matter how you spin it), or master steaming and deep frying. In the absence of access to ingredients (an often touted excuse), technique is a respectful way to represent a cuisine chefs are otherwise mining for novelty. The irony is that chef/investor led high-end restaurants get a free pass for their lack of understanding of these cuisines, whereas restaurants true to their cuisines are labelled inaccessible and foreign.

Continuing to push whitewashed versions on menus and blogs – often packaged as a “Nordic take” – reinforces the idea that other cultures are all the same; a bland beige of homogeneity devoid of nuance, lacking sophistication, and somehow primitive and therefore less important.

Despite the sophisticated techniques, expensive ingredients and man hours demanded by Asian cuisine, the expectation is that it should be cheap food.

We’ve seen the backlash to the criticism of the Icelandic Opera’s production of Madama Butterfly, which was called out for its problematic stereotypes. The feeling that these are just cultures we can freely take from, with zero accountability was evident in the truly vitriolic comment sections. How these stereotypes are both born and supported by food narratives is a documented phenomenon.

Pass the mayo

When the world has been asking the hard questions about foodways and representation, Iceland keeps going hard at the mayo machine. I long for a truly bombastic meal where the funkiness of kimchi is fully embraced, where dumplings aren’t shamed with superfluous showers of crudely cut spring onion and squirts of mayo instead of being presented as the lovingly pleated parcels of juicy meat they are. Where tempura isn’t garishly coloured shrimp or a grease-fest of deadbeat mushrooms, but an ethereal veil of crunch that delicately encases chunks of veggies and shrimp, their colours bright and their texture firm and crisp. I long for aggressively seasoned warm rice in my sushi. I long for fun fusion food that takes the best of two different worlds and fuses them in imaginative new ways.

I also long for the day when bloggers will stop parading problematic totems as validity (mango chutney, here’s looking at you). Somehow ekta inðverksur Madras lentils is hard to digest given that the colonial name has long been reclaimed by the native Chennai. Such is the impact of lazy writing that passes as recipes today that celebrated Nanna Rögnvaldsdóttir even admits that she will not do any more cookbooks.

I often hear the refrain that the Icelandic customer is a stubborn one, seeking familiarity and safety when dining out. But that thought centres only one kind of customer and wholly ignores the other growing one. Almost 20% of our population is now of foreign origin. In an environment where dairy monopolies, supermarket chains and import companies are dictating availability, restaurants should be held accountable to both the paying customers as well the cuisines they are recklessly plumbing from.

We are a diverse society, well on our way to being a truly multicultural country. By any global metric, we are a privileged lot in Iceland. To eat well and learn from each meal shouldn’t be a pipedream.

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