Icelandic cuisine

Iceland had been at the top of my ‘places to visit’ list for a while, until I made the spontaneous decision to go with a friend last September.

The Blue Lagoon

The famous “Blue Lagoon” geothermal spa.

The plan was to spend 2 weekends in the capital, Reykjavik, with the days in between travelling the country by car. As expected, the scenery was breathtaking, like another planet; within minutes in the car, the landscapes would change from green rolling hills with sheep and cattle, to endless black sand beaches, to fields of boiling mud pits, to dramatic glaciers, to rocky lunar plains.

Hverir

The boiling mud pits of Hverir.

The goal of the trip was to experience as much of this spectacular scenery as we could, and it turned out to be one of the highlights of my time in Europe.

One thing we didn’t expect, however, was much from the cuisine – it certainly wasn’t a reason for our visit.

It turns out we were pleasantly surprised. Icelandic cuisine is very simple in many ways, but almost every meal we had was really enjoyable.

Seafood makes up a large part of the diet in Iceland, like in other parts of the Nordic region, with fresh fish being eaten all year round. The most common seafood eaten is salmon, herring, haddock and shrimp.

Icelandic Salmon

A simple Icelandic salmon dish with roasted potatoes, onions, red peppers, tartar sauce and lemon.

Iceland is also very famous for its lamb, and we found most of the lamb dishes to be a real treat.

Icelandic Lamb

This grilled marinated lamb dish with garlic, herbs and spices was particularly memorable!

The most common vegetables in the Icelandic diet are potatoes, cabbage and turnip. Most often the vegetables are boiled in a simple fashion and served with a main of seafood or meat.

We also came across a couple of other interesting treats we hadn’t seen elsewhere, such as black lava salt – sea salt that has been mixed with activated charcoal, which is known for its detoxifying effects and aid with digestion. While at first we felt it was a little gimmicky, it did have a distinct taste, and a pretty unique appearance!

Black Lava Salt

Black lava salt is seen across Iceland.

Icelandic cuisine is very simple, with most dishes focusing on very natural flavours, but I think it’s fair to say this should be one more reason for your visit to Iceland.

Mochi-tsuki in Gunma Prefecture

Japan has a culture so rich and so deep that even after having been here for 6 years, I’m still hearing new customs and traditions for the first time. Mochi-tsuki is something I’d heard about before, but never had the chance to try. This weekend, however, I was lucky enough to be invited out to Gunma prefecture to join the ceremony with a friend’s family.

My friend's house in Shibukawa, Gunma prefecture.

My friend’s house in Shibukawa, Gunma prefecture.

Mochi is Japanese rice cake, made of mochigome, a short-grain rice, and is eaten year-round in Japan, but is traditionally made in the mochi-tsuki ceremony on the 30th of December each year.

Mochi

The mochi starting to look more like mochi!

First, the rice is soaked overnight and then cooked by steaming. It is then placed into a hollowed out wooden mortar called an usu, and hammered with wooden mallets called kine. Usually the hammering is done by two people, alternating in a steady rhythm to avoid hitting each other (the kine are very heavy!).

Cooking the mochi.

Cooking the mochi.

This family's 'usu' is almost 100 years old.

This family’s ‘usu’ is almost 100 years old.

Every now and then, the mochi is turned and wet a little more, and after it reaches a smooth consistency, it is placed onto a large wooden board and covered with a special flour, before being rolled flat with a rolling pin. It can be formed into various shapes, depending on the dish it is being used for.

Mochi gets very sticky and stretchy!

Mochi gets very sticky and stretchy!

The 'kine' being used to hammer the mochi.

The ‘kine’ being used to hammer the mochi.

Rolling out the mochi.

Rolling out the mochi.

Our mochi batches almost ready!

Our mochi batches almost ready!

The most well-known dish in which mochi is used is the traditional soup eaten on New Year’s Day, o-zōni, but mochi is eaten in a number of different ways. There’s also kinako-mochi (mochi coated in soy bean flour, and also often brown sugar syrup), daifuku, or anpin for those using the Gunma dialect (sweet red bean paste wrapped in mochi), or various other sweet and savoury treats.

O-zōni, the traditional New Year's Day soup.

O-zōni, the traditional New Year’s Day soup.

Kinako-mochi - usually eaten for good luck.

Kinako-mochi – usually eaten for good luck.

'Daifuku' or 'anpin'.

‘Daifuku’ or ‘anpin’.

Eating traditional meals with Japanese families has always been the highlight of my time in Japan, and even better is being involved in the cooking process!