Hygge (pronounced hyoo-gah) is a Danish expression which, loosely translated, means “culture of cozy.”
The concept of cultural coziness isn’t unique to Denmark though—all Nordic cultures know a thing or two about cozy: Swedes use “roligt” to describe their cozy ways, and it’s “moro” in Norwegian, “hauskaa” in Finnish, and “gaman” in Icelandic.
Olaf in the Disney Classic Frozen
Different words, different languages, but all descriptors for that warm, fuzzy experience of snuggling up around a fireplace on a frigid, gray day with family, friends, comfort food.
(“Hygge” is my personal favorite because it sounds like a sing-song Scandinavian version of the word “hug”.)
Cozy culture felt particularly appropriate this month, as I imagine most of us have long-since traded our breezy front porch shindigs for more intimate fireplace gatherings. And as eastern NC gets pummeled by arctic blasts cold enough to chill even the hardiest Viking to their core (okay, probably not), our recent wave of cold snaps have sent this wimp of a Scandinavian southerner on a mission for all things cozy.
Bring on the hygge!
A Cozy Adventure
Chattering teeth aside, the recent chill has brought back wonderfully cozy memories of a belated honeymoon trip. Pre-baby, pre-COVID… all the way back in 2018, Will and I hopped on a plane in search of Nordic adventures…
En route to Norway, we took advantage of Iceland Air’s “stopover,” an option which allows you to extend a layover through Keflavík International Ariport for a few days, in exchange for extraordinarily reasonable airfare. It’s a fantastic option if you’re traveling without tight time constraints to most of Northern Europe—we saved a significant chunk of change on airfare and managed to log a bonus mini-adventure in the process.
(My only complaint about the stopover is that Iceland is far too spectacular for two short days… but then again, I’d probably feel similar after two months.)
We’d booked a simple but clean Airbnb in Reykjavík’s city center and spent the next 48 hours exploring on foot. It drizzled for most of our stay, and the temperature hovered just above freezing, but we found we were never more than a two-minute walk from warming up in the nearest café.
Despite the harsh climate, or maybe because of it, these cafés were the embodiment of hygge: small, inviting, and warmly lit, with locals gathered in cushy chairs around central fireplaces. We were instantly charmed by the sense of easy contentment in these little oases of cozy. Nobody was rushed. Nobody seemed preoccupied. They were happy to just be… and perhaps herein lies the essence of hygge.
As Comforting as Food Gets
At the end of our second day, damp, chilled, and ravenously hungry, we wandered past one of these cafés. It was a literal hole in the wall, marked only by a small, inconspicuous sign entirely in Icelandic, and only accessible down a narrow set of wobbly cobblestone steps barely visible from the sidewalk. If not for the scent of traditional Icelandic comfort food wafting up and inviting us down those narrow old stairs, we would have missed it entirely.
Salivating, we stumbled into a packed, tiny, basement-level café with a half a dozen or so tables. Much like the well-concealed sign out front, everything was in Icelandic, from the menu to the conversations to our waiter’s greeting. (That is, until an Aussie couple plopped down beside us to share a table. We became fast friends over a magical dinner.)
Sheepishly aware of our lack of local language, we asked in English for our waiter’s recommendation.
He smiled warmly and said without hesitation: “fiskisupa.”
A traditional Icelandic fish soup made from chunks of fresh cod, halibut, or both, and root veggies, all floating in a bowl of the most wonderfully flavorful, soul-warming broth, and served with hearty, crusty, fresh-baked bread. Along with our new Aussie friends, Will and I agreed this was the best thing we’d ever eaten.
If Hygge has a Flavor, that Flavor is Fiskisupa.
We got back to our Airbnb that evening feeling as content and cozy as we ever have… but, as we started packing for our early morning flight to Bergen, Norway, we realized we were desperate to not lose the fiskisupa magic we’d discovered that evening.
So the following morning, we fought back jetlag, checked out of our Airbnb several hours early, and spent the wee hours wandering some of Reykjavík’s most historic neighborhoods, in hopes of finding that wonderful, perfect place again before we had to catch the shuttle for our flight.
We never found it. But as fates sometimes allow, we bumped into our new Aussie buddies waiting to board the same flight to Bergen. They’d gone on a similar walkabout that morning, and had come up similarly empty-handed.
So we sat there at our terminal, waiting to board, and maniacally digging for a snippet of information on this restaurant. We still came up empty-handed.
Leaving Iceland was bittersweet. The next few weeks meant unparalleled adventures through the fjord country surrounding Bergen (and unparalleled coziness… and yet another chance encounter with the awesome Aussies… what are the odds?!?) We then headed north into the Arctic Circle and the magical Lofoten islands.
A Seemingly Futile Search
Once we arrived back stateside, we couldn’t stop dreaming of Icelandic fiskisupa. My ravenously hungry, then 6-months-pregnant self regularly woke up drooling after fiskisupa dreams.
Those were definitely not my finer moments.
We scoured Google Earth. No luck. We reached out to the Icelandic friends we’d made. If they knew of the place, they certainly weren’t letting on.
We chatted back and forth at least a dozen times with our Aussie friends, triangulating clues, swapping data… literally anything that could help lead us back to this tiny, perfect café with its impossible-to-pronounce Icelandic name, unparalleled coziness, and magical soul-warming fish soup.
Four years later, we’re still coming up empty-handed.
Thus began a 4-year-long process of educated trial and error.
Lots and lots and lots of error. But I’ve never been one to let something so special slip through my fingers, so the process looked something like this:
Year 1: Mope. Dramatically mourn the loss of fiskisupa. Give birth. Temporarily forget about fiskisupa.
Year 2: Scour the internet for any and all traditional Icelandic fiskisupa recipes. Cook as instructed with baby loaded in front carrier. Begrudgingly eat the bad, and toss the recipes, make tons of chicken-scratch notes on the good (with rushed handwriting exacerbated by squirming small-fry strapped into carrier.) Stash in file named “fiskisupa=good” for further R&D.
Year 3: Realize most prior notes illegible, re-cook the stashed recipes. Chase toddler. Make significantly better notes. Save toddler from imminent climbing demise. Refine. Chase toddler. Make more notes… file more data for the “fiskisupa=good” file
Year 4: Discover legible notes. Score! Solid recipes?!? Double score!!! Enlist cooking help from newly self-sufficient toddler. Blend flavor profiles according to last year’s notes, make slight adjustments and finalize recipe.
Admittedly, I’m far enough removed from that first magical fiskisupa experience in Reykjavík that memory has blended with many, many cooking foibles. Perhaps the true test would be to overnight a batch to Australia for feedback.
But after 4 years, I feel like I’m finally close enough to the real deal to share it publicly…
So without further ado, here’s wishing everyone all things cozy, peaceful and warm this winter.
- 3 Tbsp olive oil
- 3 Tbsp butter
- 1 large yellow onion, finely diced
- 5 garlic cloves, minced
- 4-5 celery stalks, diced
- 2 leeks (white part) thinly sliced
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 Tbsp curry powder (plus up to 3 Tbsp additional, depending on preference)
- ½ Tbsp thyme
- Salt & pepper to taste
- 3 Tbsp tomato paste
- 2 Tbsp flour
- 2/3 cup dry white wine
- 80 oz chicken (or seafood) stock
- 1 to 2 – 10 oz jars clam juice (eliminate or reduce if using seafood stock)
- 2 cups carrots, cut into 1” pieces
- 2 cups Yukon Gold potatoes, cut into 1” cubes
- 2-3 firm Nordic white fish (cod, halibut, or a combo of the two), cut into 1” strips
- 1 cup heavy cream
In a large stock pot over medium heat, combine 1 Tbsp each (or more, if needed) of olive oil and butter. Sauté the onion, garlic, celery, leeks until translucent, about 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in thyme, curry powder, and the remaining olive oil and butter.
Reduce heat to low, sprinkle the flour evenly on top of this mixture, and stir frequently (scraping the bottom of the pot to avoid burning) until flour is cooked, about 10 minutes.
Return heat to medium, stir in tomato paste and white wine, add bay leaves, and simmer for a few minutes, until alcohol has cooked off and liquid has reduced by half.
Family games are encouraged during this time.
Add chicken stock and clam juice (or seafood stock), reduce heat to low once more, cover, and simmer for 30 minutes.
Add carrots and potatoes. When root veggies are almost done (about 7 or 8 minutes) add fish, cook an additional 3-4 minutes, remove from heat and stir in cream.
- Serving Size: 16 oz
- # Servings: 12
- Calories per Serving: 333
- Calories from Fat: 101
- Protein: 21g
- Fiber: 4g
- Sugars: 5g
- Prep time: 15 minutes
- Active cooking time: 20 minutes
- Simmer: 45 minutes
- Total: 1 hour, 20 minutes