Kjötsúpa or Icelandic meat soup is often called the island's national dish. It transforms lamb and root vegetables into warm, primal comfort food. And some claim it has near-magical healing powers too...
Nothing it seems is as pervasive across Iceland as its traditional meat soup - Kjötsúpa. (pronounced KERT-SUPPA). You find it on most menus in restaurants, hotels, roadside diners and even gas stations. The 'meat' is usually lamb, but could also be sheep or mutton, while the root vegetables are almost always carrots and potatoes, with a supporting cast of turnips, rutabaga, cabbage and cauliflower.
Given that even in summer the average daytime high struggles to reach 13 C (55 F) and rain is a constant threat, a steaming bowl of lamb soup with a slice of dark rye 'thunder bread', rúgbrauð, is always a welcome treat.
It started with the Vikings
Some form of lamb or sheep soup has been a staple of Iceland since before the year 900 AD. The Viking Norseman arrived with sheep and goats, perhaps from Norway. Ingólfr Arnarson, considered the first settler of Iceland, arrived about 874 and helped established Reykjavik where the majority of Icelanders now reside.
Within a few years of Ingólfr's arrival, the island's sheep population became vital to the first settlers. No part of the sheep went to waste; everything from head to hoof was eaten. Boiling lamb shoulder and shanks was an easy way to get at all the most tender meat, and the nutritional benefit of the bone marrow infused into the broth was a healthy bonus.
Along with the meat, root vegetables in addition to barley and rye that grew so well in the summer with over twenty hours of sunlight per day, provided all the ingredients required for both soup and bread.
Icelandic meat soup has no official recipe
The only thing most Icelanders agree with in regards to Kjötsúpa is: 'let me make it my own way.'
Even though almost every home has a recipe for this soup (some call it a stew) apparently no two households make it exactly the same. This might be a reflection of the Icelandic character - easy-going but fiercely independent, resilient and quietly proud of their remote island heated by an unlimited supply of hot water bubbling up from the ground in hot springs all over the country.
Key ingredients and sample recipes
A quick search on the web will uncover a score of recipes for Kjötsúpa.
Here is the one I am using with good results so far. This is gleaned from various sources (see links at the end of this post) along with my own preferences/additions. (Celery adds a little extra dimension). Of course, in the spirit of Iceland, feel free to use this as a starting point and make your own Kjötsúpa variation.
My Icelandic Lamb Soup (Kjötsúpa)
PRINT VERSION (PDF) Ingredients:
4 lbs / 2 kg fresh lamb shoulder or shanks (bone-in of course)
2 cloves, finely chopped garlic
1 large onion, sliced
1 leek, finely sliced
2 stalks of celery, diced
12 cups / 2.75 litres of water
5 large carrots
7 yellow flesh potatoes
1 medium rutabaga
1 large parsnip
1/4 cabbage head, sliced
1/2 cup, 120 ml, pearl barley
1 cup cauliflower florets (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
Bunch of fresh or dried herbs: thyme, parsley, sage (in a cheesecloth sack).
Add a glug of olive oil to a large dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot.
Over medium heat, sauté onions, leeks and celery for a few minutes, then add chopped garlic and cook until the aroma fills you with wonder, or five minutes, whichever comes first.
Generously salt and pepper lamb shoulder and/or shanks. Add to the pot and brown on all sides. This will take a while.
Add water, and herbs tied in a cheesecloth sack. Bring to a boil. Skim the surface of any scum and lower the heat. Cover and simmer for an hour.
While the soup is boiling, prepare the vegetables. Dice into pieces that will live happily on a teaspoon.
After an hour, add the barley, rutabaga and parsnips. Continue boiling for twenty-five minutes, then add the potatoes and carrots and boil another 15 minutes or until carrots are tender, but not mushy, please!
If you need more liquid, add vegetable or beef broth to be sure all the veggies are covered.
Remove lamb and herbs from the soup. If you are using cauliflower, add the florets now along with the cabbage and bring to a boil for another 5-10 minutes.
Debone lamb meat and add it back to the soup.
Serve with thick bread of your choice (multi-grain, ciabatta, rye, or fresh baguette)
Try your own variation
This is a guideline and you can probably change things up. Some people prefer to use beef or vegetable stock rather than water. Strictly speaking, garlic and celery are not part of this dish and herbs in Iceland are those found growing wild in tundra-like pastures, or packages of soup herbs from the grocery store which are in fact dried parsnips, carrots and leeks.
True Icelandic lamb soup aficionados frown on the use of stock as the flavour of braising bone-in lamb should take centre stage. Also, many Icelandic homes remove the lamb and potatoes when it is served and then spoon a little of the soup over top of it.
For a few other variations check out these recipes for Kjötsúpa lamb soup:
Iceland Magazine: Make your own traditional Icelandic Meat soup
Fit Men Cook: Kjötsúpa Icelandic Lamb Soup Recipe
Adamant Kitchen: Icelandic Lamb Soup (Kjötsúpa)
The Mole and the Queen: Traditional Icelandic Lamb soup/stew
Beck & Bulow: Kjotsupa Traditional Icelandic Lamb & Vegetable Soup
Iceland 2022 - Photo Gallery
Here are just a few of the hundreds of photos we took on our trip to Iceland. It is a country full of breathtaking landscapes and warm people, something like a well-made bowl of Kjötsúpa soup!