Iceland is frigid. I know this because three days into my camping trip around the country, I had to backtrack to Ikea and buy extra blankets. I should have brought more than a bookbag and satchel for the 12-day trip. The amount of clothes I packed probably would have been fine, if I had been sleeping in hotels. However, I was camping out in a rented Transit vehicle and the nights got cold. And the days didn’t get warm. The vehicle, in addition to a mattress, came with a small kitchenette. I was content eating Ramen-esque noodles and soup made from various canned vegetables that, in the end, resembled borscht for the first ten days, but then I needed a break.
It gets so cold in Iceland even the rocks benefit from knitted clothes.
Photo by Kenny Coogan
Finishing my trip around Iceland’s Ring Road, I found myself back in Reykjavík. The road, which circles the perimeter of the country, is more than 800 miles. While on holiday, many tourists sample the various meats Iceland has to offer. Most of these endemic meals are eaten in Reykjavík, as it is the largest city and popular with tourists. Reykjavík encourages travelers with long layovers to explore the city. In the city you can relax in thermal spas, view snowcapped mountains, and are only a short drive from crystal blue glaciers. As a vegetarian I usually have limited options, regardless of the city, however, in the land of whale meat, lamb, and fermented shark I did find a vegetarian oasis at the Garðurinn restaurant.
Café Garðurinn: Ecstasy’s Heart Garden (great name) is a cozy vegetarian restaurant in the heart of the capital. The menu changes daily and you can choose from two dishes: vegan or vegetarian. On my particular visit they were serving Mexican soup, or should I say Icelandic Mexican soup. The soup was so good I met the owner to discuss vegetarian living in Iceland and to get the recipe.
“Iceland´s traditions have changed drastically since I was a child,” Pujarini Gudny Jonsdottir, owner of the restaurant tells me. In addition to owner, she co-manages the restaurant with her husband and is the chef.
“When I was growing up we had fish four times a week and then meat three times, mostly sheep and occasionally shark, but I don´t remember having whale.”
A humpback whale enjoying herself in one of the many fjords Iceland has to offer.
Photo by Kenny Coogan
On a whale watching trip in the Northern part of Iceland, the captain said that the majority of whale meat is exported to Japan. The next largest consumer are tourists. Traditionally, I was told, Icelanders only ate beached whales and did not go whaling.
“I think that most of our Icelandic customers are not strictly vegetarian but like to include vegetarian [meals] in their diet. Those who are vegetarian and vegan are thankful for more variety of restaurants. The reaction has been good and rewarding to us in the form of grateful, loyal customers.”
I was also grateful for finding this restaurant. The warm soup tasted great and has been replicated in my kitchen many times.
Kenny Coogan enjoying Mexican soup in Reykjavík’s Café Garðurinn vegetarian restaurant.
Photo by Ryan McGhee
Icelandic Mexican Soup Recipe
• 1 tbsp vegetable oil
• 1 tbsp crushed garlic
• 1 onion, finely chopped
• 1 tbsp crushed chilies
• 2 28 oz canned tomatoes
• 2 large carrots, peeled and grated
• 2 sweet potatoes, peeled and grated
• Minced coriander leaves
1. In a large pot, sauté the onions and garlic in the vegetable oil for four to five minutes until they are translucent.
2. Add chilies and cook for another minute.
3. Bring the canned tomatoes, carrots, and sweet potatoes to a boil for about 10 minutes, until the root vegetables are tender.
4. Blend until smooth.
5. Sprinkle minced coriander leaves to taste. Serving with crusty bread and hummus is highly recommended.
Kenny Coogan is a pet, garden, and travel columnist for various magazines. His goal is to live off the land, planting one seed at a time on his one-acre permaculture homestead. Search Critter Companions by Kenny Coogan on Facebook or visit KennyCoogan.com to learn more.