Published January 14, 2005


By Valur Gunnarsson

An American book from 1965 called The Art of Scandinavian Cooking (a contradiction in terms, you may be thinking) states: “The cold climate of the North demands that more fats be eaten. But all the opulent sauces and clouds of whipped cream do not seem to affect the Scandinavian figure much; this does seem most unfair to the visitor limited to the low-calorie lettuce leaf.”

Ah, happy days. When I was a child in the late 70s, hot dogs from your local kiosk were still the only fast food to be had in Reykjavík. When the burger joint Tommaborgarar opened in 1981, it was the first fast food joint in the city. By the early 90s, however, you could order a pizza at any time of day. The first McDonald’s opened in 1993, and faced stiff competition from local sandwich bars such as Hlölli (opened in 1986) and Nonni (opened in 1993). Coupled with the introduction of beer in 1989 (brennivín might not do much for the mind but it is, after all, better for the figure), Icelanders, who in the 80’s claimed to be the most beautiful and healthy people in the world as they regularly won strong man and beauty pageants, were suddenly no longer immune to the obesity epidemic.

It used to be that a round belly was associated with affluence, but these days, food that’s bad for you is usually cheaper than food that’s good for you, it is only the affluent who can enrol in the gym and do health-conscious shopping; it is only the rich who can afford to take care of their bodies.

Everything is allowed

We may still be more beautiful than the British, thank God, but obesity has hit the Nordic countries particularly hard in the past years. In his book Fast-Food Nation, Eric Schlosser states that countries that have more established food cultures are less susceptible to obesity. A Frenchman, Italian or Spaniard used to two-hour meals with wine during lunchtime is less impressed with an order-and-eat-in-less-than-15-minutes fast food joint. Conversely, Northern Europeans, who have more of an eat-to-live than live-to-eat mentality, which formerly guaranteed their good figures, are now overtaking the Latins in terms of overeating. The Scandinavians are a meat-and-potatoes kind of people. For them, going to a restaurant is not something you do for lunch every day, but something special to do when celebrating. And then everything is allowed.

It used to be that you had certain blowouts, such as Christmas, Easter or “Sprengidagur.” Sprengidagur is on the 7th Tuesday before Easter, this year landing on the 8th of February, and translates literally as “exploding day,” or “bursting day,” the idea being that you are supposed to eat until you burst. This is done in preparation for the 40 days until Easter where meat is neither to be eaten nor even mentioned. In fact, people would refer to meat as “cloven salmon” during Lent to avoid mentioning it by name.

But these days, it seems every day is bursting day. Whereas a couple of decades ago you would pig out at Tommaborgarar once a month, now Icelanders eat out at some snack bar, no holds barred, several times a week. And it goes to show you can tell. So what is Icelandic food culture that has been so lacking in resilience when faced with external threats?

A Brief History of Icelandic Overeating

In most famous of the Sagas, Njála, the hero’s wife is accused of stealing cheese from his enemies. Much feuding and bloodshed results. A dead whale drifting ashore could also result in a minor civil war, as our forefathers killed each other over rights to the rotting meat.

When the settlers first came to Iceland, they found little in the way of game or indeed any animals at all here. The sheep they brought along became the mainstay of the diet. There not being much else available, every part of the sheep was eaten, the blood made into pudding, the liver into sausages, eyes, testicles and everything was devoured. The less tender parts of the sheep are still eaten once a year in homage to our impoverished ancestors, although not before copious amounts of brennivín are consumed as anaesthetic.
Cows were expensive to keep, and dairy became much prized among islanders. In Halldór Laxness’ Independent People, the protagonist Bjartur meagrely subsists with his sheep on a barren plot of land, but his wife maintains that everything will be alright as long as they have the cow. Now that Icelanders can eat more or less whatever they want, milk products are everywhere; cheese, súrmjólk (soured milk), yogurt and skyr; clabbered milk which is standard lunch fare but tourists have somehow been tricked into believing makes for a nice desert. “Mjólk er góð” (Milk is good), we are constantly reminded, and milk is commonly thought to cure every ill, even though it is not only fattening but destroys your immune system as well.

Eating like a pig, Danish style

During the Danish period, pork, the mainstay of Danish cuisine, became popular among the upper classes, which is still reflected in our Christmas dinners. Whereas the poor were forced to eat bird such as ptarmigan, the wealthy would feast on Danish pork. Today, however, it is the other way around. Ptarmigan has become rare in the highlands and, thanks to a three year hunting ban, is now expensive and hard to get a hold of. Pork, on the other hand, is everywhere.

When Icelanders went forth to colonise the New World, they brought their culinary traditions with them. Framfari, the New Iceland immigrants magazine in Canada, said in 1878: “I would also advise emigrants to take with them sufficient Icelandic food, for experience has shown the food people eat along the way to disagree with them…This food ought to consist especially of hardfish, butter or good mutton, tallow kæfa…and a little good aquavit made from grain (brennivín).”

It’s only in the past few decades that Icelanders have gone from fish, mutton and potatoes to being able to eat whatever we want. Small wonder, then, that we have gone a bit overboard. It will take a while to adjust. Until then, we are at the mercy of advertisers who pray on our genetic need to build up as much fat as possible for the lean years.

In a society that has always had notoriously strict alcohol laws, and has recently been introducing ever stricter tobacco laws, perhaps a spot of food legislation is in order.

Shouldn’t we at least be allowed to know what we eat? We have to go to a special store for our alcohol needs. When we get a hangover the day after, at least we can’t say it was entirely unexpected. The British, who are currently suffering the most because of the obesity epidemic, are introducing a labelling system, wherein food that’s bad for you is labelled red, food that’s good for you is labelled green and in between is labelled yellow. Perhaps that’s just what we need over here. That way, is you start piling them on, at least you shouldn’t be surprised.


by Angela Stokes

Traditional cuisine in Iceland is not exactly renowned for being very vegan or even vegetarian-friendly. In fact the average Icelander is unlikely to know what vegan means (someone who consumes no animal products whatsoever). Amidst the sheep’s’ heads, rams’ testicles and cods’ cheeks, you’re unlikely to tempt the average Icelander with a good salad. This is the land after all where adverts remind us that ‘Icelanders eat hotdogs’ – apparently a matter of national pride. Yet it was in this very land that my eating habits and indeed, my entire life, underwent extraordinary transformation. It was in a tiny Icelandic countryside village in May 2002 that I was first introduced by a friend to the concept of a ‘raw food’ lifestyle.

Finding food salvation in the land of meat and potatoes

Eating ‘raw’ simply involves eating as much fresh, raw, living food as possible, such as fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, seaweeds and oils, whilst cutting out all other foods such as meat, fish, dairy, wheat/baked goods, processed foods, sugar and so on.
When I first arrived in Iceland in August 2001, I was 23 years old and weighed approximately 120kg, having already managed to lose 13kg from my all time high of 133kg aged 21. After learning about eating raw however, I decided to swap junk foods for a high percentage raw diet and went on to lose about 54kg over 18 months and now weigh a happy and healthy 66kg.
From my initial decision to go raw, my life transformed on a daily basis – the fat just burnt off me, my skin and hair showed new radiance and I had so much more energy and enthusiasm. Men started to be interested in me and I could wear whatever clothes I wanted, not just those which fitted.

The raw food world

In a time when overweight and obesity have been declared world epidemics by the World Health Organisation, this lifestyle offers a chance for people to make a real and lasting difference to their health.

A great source of support for me here has been the Icelandic raw food group that meets roughly once a month. The number of attendees at the meetings has rapidly grown from a few friends support to a current average attendance of 20-30 people. Indeed, when a leading figure from the raw food world, Victoria Boutenko, came from America to give a lecture series at the University of Iceland in June last year, the interest and attendance was phenomenal, leading to her book ’12 steps to Raw Foods’ to be published in Icelandic for the growing market here.

Three basic tips for raw beginners:

Most often raw foodists consume no gluten products – i.e. Anything containing wheat, oats, barley and rye among others. Gluten clogs up the digestive tract and is as such best avoided. Gluten-free alternatives include buckwheat, corn/maize, rice, tapioca, soya and millet. Yes, this does mean no bread, pasta, pizza, cakes, biscuits and so on, be patient with transitioning.

A great tip for beginners is to eat just fruit before lunchtime – perhaps 3 different acid fruits for breakfast – e.g. Pineapple, grapes, plums or nectarines, then snack on something with slow-release sugars like an apple or banana mid-morning to see you through to lunch.

Don’t be put off going raw by thinking of the big changes – take things slowly, be kind to yourself and don’t punish yourself for “mistakes.” The first thing to consider is simply introducing more raw foods into your current diet.

Sample meal plan

Below is a sample meal plan for a week of 100% raw vegan, energized food. Snacks and drinks are not listed – normally snacks would consist of dried fruit, nuts, seeds, etc and drinks, aside from water, would be fresh juices, smoothies and homemade nut/seed milks.

Breakfast: Fresh fruit salad.
Lunch: Big salad with fresh guacamole on flax seed crackers, all homemade.
Dinner: Raw ‘pizza’ (dehydrated base with fresh tomato sauce and vegetables), served with salad.

Breakfast: Banana and almond milk smoothie.
Lunch: Almond-Avocado patties made with leftover almond meal from making almond milk, with salad.
Dinner: Raw nori wraps – filled with fresh vegetables, served with salad.

Breakfast: Fresh fruit salad.
Lunch: Sprouted chickpea houmous with a large salad.
Dinner: Soaked and marinated wild rice with salad.

Breakfast: Fruit smoothie.
Lunch: Sunflower-seed pate on homemade flax crackers with salad.
Dinner: Lettuce Wraps – like tortilla wraps, but use big lettuce leaves to wrap filling of choice.

Breakfast: Fresh fruit salad
Lunch: Large salad with hand-reared sprout mixture, avocado and dehydrated vegetable ‘crisps’.
Dinner: ‘Garden burgers’ – handmade raw ‘burgers’ with salad.

Breakfast: Fruit smoothie with hemp-seed milk.
Lunch: Hemp patties made from ground hemp leftover from making milk, with salad.
Dinner: Courgette spaghetti (courgetti) with fresh tomato and basil sauce, salad.

Breakfast: Fresh fruit salad
Lunch: Herb salad with fresh herbs, home-raised sunflower greens and other sprouts, served with marinated mushrooms.
Dinner: Fresh tomatoes stuffed with sprouted rice and vegetables, served with salad. Raw cake for dessert, made with nuts, carob, almond butter and fresh pear.

For more information, contact:

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu with Padraig Mara

by Padraig Mara

Yup, the holidays are over. And you’re probably thinking as you tearfully attempt to buckle your pants “Maybe I shoulda went easier on the gravy”. But what are you gonna do? You hate walking, you never learned to swim, you’re way too glutinous to diet and aerobics is for sissys. Well, lip up fatty, cuz I have the exercise regimen for you.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is now being taught in Iceland. A blended martial art, BJJ was developed in Brazil in the early part of the 20th century, incorporating the most effective aspects of Judo, traditional wrestling, and classic Japanese Jiu Jitsu. I talked with the instructor Jón Gunnar about the obvious merits of a fighting style that is able to adapt and grow with new ideas and changing situations. I asked if training in this fashion would be a good alternative for someone wishing simply to get fit and drop some weight.

He said he thought so, but I should judge for myself. There was no backing out.

“I ain’t tapping unless it feels like my arm’s coming off.”

I was paired up with a sparring partner and they ran through some basic moves with me. We began with some open handed boxing, one would take shots at the other who would in turn cover up and attempt to move into optimum position for the takedown with a hip throw, always moving, always bobbing and weaving. As I hit the mat, over and over, I realized how efficient this technique was. The next move was an arm lock. As Jón Gunnar was describing this move to me he emphasized that in his classes safety and respect is paramount, as soon as a technique is used and the student “experiences” it, he or she is to slap the mat, or “tap out” immediately and the hold is released. I nodded my head, and said yup while thinking “I ain’t tapping unless it feels like my arm’s coming off.”

We practiced the movement with my opponent in a position of decided weakness, my full weight pressing down on his chest with my arms extended to choke him. BJJ is geared towards groundfighting to a large degree and is designed to enable practitioners to turn a bad situation to their advantage. Still, I thought, no fucking way he’s getting outta this. In an instant, I was flat on my back, my arm bent at a horribly awkward angle. I thought my arm was coming off. I tapped faster than you can blink

This is what dying must feel like

We sparred for a bit longer, and then came the final move of the day, a leg lock called “The Triangle.” This didn’t sound all that frightening to me. Before Jón demonstrated the move he again emphasized the safety code of his classes: “We’re very careful with this move, we never hold it for longer than a second or two.” As he maneuvered the lock on to me I asked why that might…choke… I didn’t finish the sentence.

This effective technique utilizes your legs to pinion your opponent’s neck to their shoulder, cutting off blood supply to the brain. Being caught in this gives you the distinct impression that your head just may pop like a pimple on prom night. As I was released I thought to myself that’s what dying must feel like. I left the class, sweaty, exhausted and humiliated. What more could you ask for in a workout?

A list of distinctly Reykjavík-type situations where you will be very glad you know Brazilian Jiu Jitsu:

Now, you may well ask, what use is the knowledge of this undeniably cool shit? We’re not going brawling, we’re not gonna compete in the UFC, when will all this come in handy?

1. Long arm the law
Let’s say your having a friendly get together at your home and your neighbor appears red-faced at your door spluttering nonsense about noise and common decency and the long arm of the law. Calmly offer them these two choices as you deftly catch them in an armlock:
A) Encourage them to either learn to enjoy Europe’s “The Final Countdown” at amplifier number 11 or:
B) You will never ever let go.
They will almost certainly leave your shindig to go it’s course. Leave the lock on a bit longer and they may be persuaded to sing along to the synthesizer parts.

2. Beat up a beat poet
You been standing in line in front of Sirkús for a half an hour in the rain, then along comes Johnny Hipster who nonchalantly cuts in way at the front. Attempting diplomatic venues, you walk up and inform Johnny that there are no cutsies, no cutsies at all. But Johnny, he just won’t listen to reason. In that case, hip throw Johnny Hipster’s ass right to the pavement. If you’d like to add insult to injury, you could yell after him how Johnny’ s last short film/book/album/art installation/spoken word happening/interpretive dance thing really sucked as he skids down the block.
And finally…

3. Pardon my French
You walk into your neighborhood clothes retailer to find the last pair of mittens with skulls on them being fondled by a tourist, the very mittens you been saving for for weeks. The tourist looks like he really likes those fucking mittens too, “Excuse moi” he says, “how many crowns por la Mittens de Morte?” What are you gonna do? It’ll take weeks to knit a new pair. Leap up and seize that foreign invader in an enthusiastic triangle lock. Your hand’s been too cold for too long, goddammit.

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