The oldest Filipino restaurant in Iceland does not have a Filipino name. The sign outside says “Matstofan,” but locals will tell you the place is called “Dússabar,” after co-owner Dússi Grönfeldt. The only hint at a foreign presence is written in slim letters, barely visible from across the street: “Filipino taste.”
Those two words brought me to Borgarnes, a sleepy coastal town 76 km north of Reykjavík. Though Filipinos comprise the largest Asian population in Iceland—1,600 strong—Filipino restaurants are all but nonexistent. The tight-knit community in the capital city trades tales of businesses that failed to gain a foothold. Filipino Restaurant floundered despite its fusion fiskisúpa; Filippseyjar Grocery Store sold soy sauce for a decade before folding. One might conclude that the average Icelander has no appetite for the funky, acerbic flavors of the tropics.
Despite the apparent difficulties of selling Filipino food in Iceland, Matstofan has managed to operate for over two decades in a town with less than 1,500 residents. I visited Dússi and Cora Grönfeldt to learn how “Filipino taste” and ingenuity have helped this restaurant survive.
The interior of Matstofan wears few of the visual markers that one might associate with other Asian restaurants in Iceland. There is no waving cat at the entrance. Framed maps of Iceland, not the Philippines, hang on the walls. Inside the snack case at the bar, though, bags of shrimp crackers share space with potato crisps; the condiment shelf offers both tomato and banana ketchup.
The menu is similarly subtle. Only a handful of dishes are obviously Filipino, including the old standby pancit, which the menu calls “stir-fried chicken noodles.” The rest of the offerings chart a freewheeling course across Europe and Asia, from Russian beef stroganoff to Thai curry. The pancit comes with triangles of white bread, but it’s as good as any you’ll find at a backyard fiesta, thrumming with fish sauce and lime. Even the stroganoff carries a garlicky warmth that recalls lola’s kitchen more than babushka’s.
“That’s the Filipino taste,” says Cora, when she emerges from the kitchen to tell me how she ended up slinging noodles in this tiny town. “You know the Filipino; we know how to make things taste good.”
A native of the Philippines, Cora fled the country amid exodus during the volatile final years of President Ferdinand Marcos’ totalitarian rule. She was then a teacher at an elite Catholic school, where she taught the children of an Icelandic expat. He told her she might be able to find a job at a school in Reykjavík. Desperate for any opportunity to leave the country, she arrived in Iceland in October of 1987. “I thought we were in the middle of a bamboo forest,” she says of the drive from the airport to the city, when snow rushed past the windshield like long white stalks.
Cora married the man who picked her up at the airport, a friend of the expat she had known in the Philippines. The couple moved to Borgarnes and bought Matstofan in 1997. Locals were slow to accept the new business, viewing even the Western dishes with suspicion. “They called it dog food,” says Cora.
Food as education
Marvi Ablaza Gil, a writer and amateur chef who works as a psychiatric nurse in Reykjavík, recalls receiving similarly canine comments when she moved to Iceland in 2007. “‘Do you eat dogs?’ was a standard question I received from Icelanders,” she says.
While allowing that some regions of the Philippines cook the occasional canid, Marvi prefers to introduce her Icelandic friends to a broader understanding of her motherland’s food and culture. In her Akranes home, she hosts underground supper clubs featuring Filipino delicacies served with a side of history. She’ll explain the Spanish, Chinese and pre-colonial roots behind each dish, then round out the meal with hot chocolate poured from her grandfather’s heirloom pot. “For many people, food is the first point of entry to learn about Asian culture,” she says.
Garlic and spice
Cora’s clientele eventually accepted that educational invitation. Though she still sells more alcohol than food to townies—hence the local name “Dússabar”—she notices that Icelanders have become more willing to venture outside their culinary comfort zones. “When we started, the natives didn’t want to eat garlic,” she says. “Now the youngsters enjoy spice.”
Marvi and other creative cooks will have to provide that spice when Matstofan closes later this year. Cora owns a house in the Philippines where she plans to live out her days with Dússi — not necessarily in retirement. They are entertaining the idea of starting an Icelandic restaurant for curious Filipinos. “A restaurant is really the best business,” she says. “Everyone likes to eat.”
As Iceland continues to crawl towards cosmopolitanism, a sign advertising “Filipino taste” in the middle of Borgarnes may someday seem less surreal. For now, though, Matstofan’s prolonged existence has been a minor miracle.
Matstofan is at Brakarbraut 3 in Borgarnes. Check them out on Tripadvisor.