The Icelandic Sauce Universe - The Reykjavik Grapevine

The Icelandic Sauce Universe

The Icelandic Sauce Universe

Published September 27, 2019

Brought to you by
Ragnar Egilsson
Photo by
Art Bicnick

Whenever we talk about food in Iceland, there’s an elephant in the room and that elephant is sauce. So much sauce. Sauce on everything. Like a pachyderm bathing itself in a lake of bernaise. Like a dolphin porpoising through a cresting wave of mayonnaise.

Rise of Early Sauce

The sauce tradition in the west was born out of the need to mask the aroma of sub-par ingredients. Much like how we came up with the cocktail to make dodgy bathtub gin potable.

The advent of sauce is usually attributed to France with their five mother sauces of béchamel, espagnole, velouté, tomato sauce and hollandaise. Add to that the French invention of mayonnaise and it’s clear Icelanders owe them a serious debt.

Because it is from three french sauces that Iceland’s drippy food pyramid rises: béchamel, béarnaise, and mayonnaise.

The Unholy Trinity

Béchamel is the simple combination of flour of butter, thinned out with milk until it forms a thick white sauce. In Iceland it is known as “jafningur”. Without jafningur, the 70s in Iceland simply wouldn’t have been the same. Still to this day, it’s difficult to imagine smoked lamb, bjúga (greasy lamb sausages), salted horse or Christmas potatoes without a white blanket of béchamel.

Béarnaise, meanwhile, is nearly always spelled “bernaise” in Icelandic and while it has always had a following in Iceland, it has seen an explosion in popularity in recent years. Now, you can expect to find it anywhere from high-end steakhouses to late-night take-outs. It’s drizzled over steaks, burgers, fries and pizza without a second thought.

We got the cocktail sauce

Although it literally means “cocktail sauce,” Iceland’s kokteilsósa has nothing in common with the tomato-based dipping sauce you’ll find lurking under a prawn cocktail. No, no. This is our old friend “Too Much Mayonnaise” married to a teaspoon of ketchup and a drop of Worcestershire sauce. Ordering french fries in Iceland without kokteilsósa will get you placed in the stocks in the town square and pelted with tiny aluminium-covered tubs of the stuff.

From kokteilsósa we get the derivative “hamborgarasósa” (hamburger sauce) which is literally the exact same thing as kokteilsósa except maybe with a pinch of paprika? No really knows and no one dares recreated it. You buy that thing in a squeezy bottle, put it on a burger and never look back.

Digestive slip and slide

Where does this national sauce craving come from? One could understand the need to cover food back when Icelanders knew only two spices: salt and time. The process would always be the same: grab some mutton or fish, salt it and/or leave it somewhere for as long as it took to develop flavour or rise from the grave. This, of course, didn’t do the meal any favours appearance-wise so hiding it under some sauce seemed sensible.

In 2019, we have access to new fangled things like “fresh ingredients,” “herbs” and “spices,” so why does the over-saucing persist? My personal theory is that due to Iceland’s wet climate, it is important to reach a liquid equilibrium by ingesting a lot of dripping wet food.

We laugh at mainland Europeans coughing their way through a dust storm of a baguette with nothing but a slice of ham and a quarter wheel of cheese in it. Sure you may not want a sandwich to be the consistency of baby food, but nobody wants paper-cuts in their oesophagus either—put some sauce on that sub!

Icelanders may have too much damn sauce—but at least it’s too much damn something.

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