Monday, March 30, 2015


In my 10-year-old Midwestern mind, India was the representation of the word “exotic.” Its dusty land, spicy food, and trippy music surrounded in a whirl of color and animals I only saw in the zoo were almost the opposite of rural Indiana. I remember pouring through old issues of National Geographic at my grandmother’s house, mesmerized at how other people live. (I was also confused at the word Indian: did it refer to Native Americans, or did it refer to people from India? How do you make that distinction?) As a music major in college, I would have to study about Indian classical music and realized what I called “trippy” because of its influences on psychedelic rock of the 1960s and 1970s, was actually a system of slightly complicated rules and different tuning methods. 

India was named after the word Indus, the Persian word for the area based on the Sanskrit word for the Indus River.  Indians themselves refer to their country as Bharat.  The name Hindustan often refers to northern India and Pakistan.

India is often mentioned as its own subcontinent in Asia. It’s a large peninsula surrounded by the Arabian Sea on the western side, the Laccadive Sea off the southern coast, and the Bay of Bengal on the eastern side. On the northern side of the country, India shares borders with Pakistan, China (Tibet), Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh as well as the Himalayan Mountains. This mountain range pretty much bars the cooler winds from northern Asia from reaching the Indian subcontinent, leaving this area warmer than other areas of the same latitude. The state of Jammu and Kashmir (which always reminds me of the Led Zeppelin song) has been disputed for many years among Pakistan, China, and India.  The island nation of Sri Lanka lies off the southeast tip of India and the Maldives, also an island nation, lie farther off the southwest corner. India also claims two archipelagos: the Lakshadweep island chain off the southwest coast, and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands set pretty far off in the Andaman Sea. 

The Indian subcontinent is one of the oldest inhabited areas in the world, spanning back around 30,000 years. The Indus Valley Civilization is one of the oldest in the world, and just after this time, the implementation of the rigid and unfair caste system was put in place. At the same time, the most important Hindu work, the Vedas, were also composed. Buddhism was established during the 6th century BCE as was Jainism. Indian civilization was booming with advancements in literature, medicine, science, mathematics, and astronomy. During the Medieval times, India underwent a massive urbanization: towns and cities were being developed, reorganized, and strengthened. India engaged in several skirmishes and fought off invasions from the Mongols and other regions in what is now India. The British East India Company set up its trading posts during the 18th century, and eventually just took over the entire land. The British did introduce a variety of technological advances to the Indian people such as the railroad system (which are often depicted as being overcrowded -- definitely no "capacity" signs there) and the telegraph, but it wasn’t enough to quell the other problems with their occupation, and the Indians revolted. Eventually, the British East India Company was dissolved; however, the British remained in the picture until India completely gained independence in 1947, resulting in two states: India and Pakistan. These two countries would have several periods of unrest between themselves, and they are still in dispute, along with China, over territories in northern India. 

The India Gate, New Delhi

The capital of the country is New Delhi. As the center of India’s government, this bustling city has roughly 21.7 million people in the metro area. The capital lies in the midst of several fault lines, making it vulnerable to earthquakes, although most of them are fairly moderate. New Delhi suffers very hot summers with mild winters and is also susceptible to dust storms during the dry season. However, it typically ranks as one of the worst cities for air pollution, so if you’re asthmatic, you might want to head to the coast perhaps. New Delhi is every bit of a modern city, yet it has preserved many pieces of its ancient history throughout the city. Museums, restaurants (ranging from local, traditional food to world-class cuisine), shopping districts and markets, sports arenas, theatres, clubs, and parks dot the city, showing off the best of its culture. 

India has one of the world’s fastest growing economies. They have a large agricultural sector where major products include rice, cotton, wheat, potatoes, teas, sugarcane, jute, and oilseed. They also have highly-skilled industries such as pharmaceuticals, chemicals, textiles, telecommunications, software, food processing, and other products and skilled industries. They also have the world’s second-fastest growing automobile industry.  And of course, India is known for its IT industry that includes creating popular websites and tech products as well as supplying call centers and help desks (the inspiration of the short-run sit-com Outsourced, and much chagrin to many people). India’s film industry produces some of the world’s most-watched cinematic films. Even Netflix has an entire section just for Indian films (available in streaming and in DVD format – we just watched the movie Dhoom: 3 tonight, and it was great!). However, there is still a very serious problem with income inequality in this country, especially along gender lines. India has more than a million people who are listed as millionaires, yet most people live off of less than $2/day. 

Four religions began in Indian lands: Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism.  Hinduism is the third largest religion, and Buddhism is the fourth largest one in the world. Because of India’s multicultural history, there are also followers of several other religions in India as well: Muslims, Christians, Zoroastrians, Jews, Bahá’ís, atheists, and agnostics. 

Yes, yoga is a physical and mental practice with a basis in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.
Sanskrit, one of the oldest languages in the world, stems from this area and is part of the basis of the Indo-European family of languages. Hindi, one of two official languages, is the most widely spoken language in India and is mutually intelligible with Urdu (which is spoken in Pakistan and northern India); English is the other official language. Because this country is very much a poly-linguistic society, there are several languages that are listed as regionally recognized languages: Assamese, Bengali, Bodo, Dogri, Gujarati, Kannada, Kashmiri, Konkani, Maithili, Malayalam, Manipuri, Marathi, Nepali, Oriya, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Santali, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu, and Urdu. Of these 22 major languages spoken in India, they are also written in 13 different scripts. It’s also estimated that there are between 720-2000 dialects spoken in this country alone.

India is the second-most populated country in the world with about 1.2 billion people, yet the land is only about 1/3 the size of the United States, making it also the largest democracy. Many Indians never eat with their left hand because the left hand is used for bathroom purposes. Cows are sacred in the Hindu religion because of the symbolism between cows and good fortune. They are therefore allowed to wander freely in many areas. Although India has the largest postal network in the world with over 150,000 post offices, it’s pretty common for a letter to take nearly two weeks to go 30 miles (I’ll stop complaining about the US postal system now). One of the world’s most iconic buildings, the Taj Mahal (not to be confused with the blues musician), is located in Agra. Chai tea originated in India and is one of the most popular beverages in India – and one of my favorites as well. I’ve already found my recipes and absolutely can’t wait to make these. In the meantime, I think I’ll go drink some chai and look through more Indian films.

Up next: art and literature

Sunday, March 22, 2015


Spring has finally arrived! No more freezing! You have no idea how happy that makes me. And my kids have one more day until their spring break officially starts (they have to go on Monday of this week as a make up day for a snow day they had in January). I’m sure I’ll try to find something fun for us to do over the next couple of weeks off. Besides working.

But we’re starting off with Icelandic food today.  My kids thought Icelandic food should include ice cream and ice water. And before anyone else asks, no I’m not making fermented shark. If Andrew Zimmern could barely stomach it (I believe “putrid” is how he described it), then I’m pretty sure it’s a horrible idea. I chose items far more palatable. Besides I read that it takes around six months of burying the shark meat in volcanic rock for it to become putrid enough for those fermented shark connoissiors to enjoy it. 

Probably not the most attractive photo (kind of looks like dog food here), but trust me, if you dip this bread in soup, it's amazing.
I’m starting out with Icelandic Thunder Bread, a steamed rye bread. I have certainly made rye breads before but not steamed. I started this by mixing my dry ingredients (rye flour, all-purpose flour, baking powder, and salt) in a bowl and then mixed in my brown sugar. After I stirred in the molasses into my scalded and cooled milk, I poured this into my dry ingredients. I had a hard time getting the dough to come together. It was too dry; I had to add little bits of water to it to try to bind it altogether. Once I did get it mixed, I divided it into two sections. I took two clean aluminum cans that once held canned pineapple (about 19-20 oz) and buttered the insides of them (nicking my knuckle on a sharp edge in the process). Then I put my dough in each can (making sure it’s only about 2/3 full). I took some aluminum foil and made a “tent” to go on top of the can, leaving some room for the bread to rise. Now, instead of placing these into geothermal springs like they would in Iceland, I put my cans into my Crock Pot because, well, you know, I’m fresh out of geothermal springs. I placed metal lids into the bottom of the Crock Pot and placed the cans on top of them, adding in enough hot water to cover the bottom half of the cans. Setting my slow cooker on high and leaving it alone for nearly four hours, I let my bread slowly bake. When it was done, I was amazed that it was cooked all the way through.  I had trouble getting it out of the cans, but my husband finally managed to squeeze it out of the cans. We called it Spam Bread or Canned Bread since it was shaped exactly like the can. This is a very hearty bread. By itself, it’s almost dry and slightly gritty, but I found that if you dip it into the broth of the soup, it’s absolutely wonderful and has a very earthy flavor.  

Who can seriously resist this? (Well, ok, vegetarians, vegans, my friend who hates lamb, my brother-in-law who hates soup...)
Today’s main dish is Saltkjöt og baunir, or salted meat and split pea soup. This is a stew where I had to make several substitutions, like I had to go with green split peas instead of yellow split peas. I threw in some diced onions and the peas into boiling water along with the diced lamb. (The meat was supposed to be salted meat, but mine was unsalted. I chose shoulder chops and also threw in the bones as well.) I let this cook for about a half hour before adding in some smoked bacon, diced potatoes, diced turnips (in lieu of rutabagas), and baby carrots, letting it simmer for another 40 minutes.  There was a note in my recipe that some people add in a little milk just before serving, but I decided to add in a little heavy whipping cream instead. It gave it this a nice potato soup consistency and the vegetables were quite tender. I topped mine with some fresh marjoram. It was so awesome. Even my finicky six-year-old son liked it.  

And now, the pièce de résistence.
And finally, I made a dessert for this one. I couldn’t resist Mandarínu-ostakaka, or Mandarin orange cheesecake. I love cheesecake, but I’ve never made one from scratch before.  This recipe starts out by mixing the graham cracker crumbs, sugar, and butter together and pressing it into the bottom and part of the sides of a pie tin, baking this crust for about eight minutes.  Then I mixed together the cream cheese (I actually went with neufchâtel cheese), sugar, and vanilla extract. Separately, I mixed the lemon gelatin (do you know how hard it is to find this, apparently?) into boiling water and let it cool. When this was half set up, I slowly poured it into my cheese mixture. Then I folded in my whipped cream and poured it into my pie shell, letting it cool for about an hour. After this, I drained my mandarin oranges, reserving the juice. I added lemon juice to the orange juice, warmed it up and mixed in the unflavored gelatin. The gelatin immediately solidified, so I had to keep stirring a lot while it was cooling. After placing the mandarin orange segments on top in a pattern, I gently brushed the orange juice-gelatin mixture over the oranges and top of the pie and put it back in the refrigerator to cool. By far this was the best part of the meal, although it was hard to contend with the soup.  My husband said my cheesecake tasted better than store-bought cheesecake.  So, I guess it’s a winner!

The best meal I've eaten all week. (Although the bread looks like a hamburger patty. Haha.)
I didn’t realize how fascinated with Iceland that I was going to become. One night I ended up on some page teaching the basics of the Icelandic language. It’s an interesting language; I think I’d like to learn more. Some lonely NSA operative in a basement office tracking my Internet searches is probably scratching his head over all the crazy things I end up looking at. All in the name of education. But the Internet is a great tool. I’d never have been able to do this blog 20 years ago. I mean, the Internet was certainly around, but it wasn’t at the level it is today.  My library is great, but it doesn’t have nearly the resources for world recipes sans the Internet.  I do occasionally go and look through recipe books at the library, but I can find so much more with a simple Internet search.  For instance, I found the recipes for the soup and the cheesecake from Jo’s Icelandic Recipes blog. Recipe sharing on the Internet is exactly what the Internet was designed to be for: the exchange of information. So, I worried when talks regarding net neutrality were making headlines. Societies where people do not have access to information (or who have to pay for it) never end well for the low guy on the totem pole. But luckily, we still have access to information.  (For now, at least.) So, I’ll just enjoy my cheesecake and my Internet access and not think about anything else.

Up next: India


Traditional music in Iceland is closely related to Norse and Viking musical traditions. Many of the lyrical themes of these folk songs were on topics such as life at sea, love, the harsh winters of the north, and mythological creatures (elves, trolls, dragons, etc.). These songs didn’t have any religious ties to them, and many of them were humorously written. Because Iceland is an island and sits pretty far away from other islands, their isolation helped to keep these traditions alive far longer than the Scandinavian countries where these styles originated. A lot of the poetic styles that were popular during the Middle Ages, namely skaldic poetry and rímur, also doubled as musical styles as well. These were typically sung a cappella, and the lyrics were highly metaphorical.  

By the time the 18th century rolled around, other musical styles from the European mainland started slowly pouring into Iceland via Denmark. Dance music styles such as the waltz (from Austria and southern Germany), the schottische (from Bohemia), the reel (Scotland, Ireland), and the polka (Bohemia, central Europe) became increasingly popular. After these dances arrived in Iceland, their own native dances practically fell to disuse. However, there are dance troups the emerged during the 20th century to try to re-teach these folk dances so they're not lost. Many of these dances are circle dances or partner dances, and the steps are simplistic, danced by both men and women. There are quicker dances as well.

Some of the instruments that were popular in Icelandic folk music include the langspil, a zither that acts like a drone. It has one melody string and can have between one and five drone strings. Most commonly, it will have at least two drone strings. The body of the instrument is typically made from a variety of different kinds of wood, even driftwood. The langspil can either be plucked, hammered, or played with a bow. The fidla is another type of zither, but this one is made like a box. There are two pegs that stick up on one end with one string tied to each peg and stretched across the box lengthwise and across the bridge. Holes are cut in the top of the box for resonance. 

Iceland has produced many popular artists today, several of whom have reached international fame. One of my all-time favorites – I’ve listened to her since the mid-1990s – is Björk. As I was doing my research and writing about Iceland this week, I started listening to some of her music again, and I’m constantly reminded why I love her music so much. She mixes a little bit of rock with ambient trance and electronica sounds, but she isn’t afraid to add in classical and jazz elements to her music as well. And she sings in English. I recently read an article about her and her choice to speak out for how difficult it is for women musicians who write their own music. More specifically, how much credit goes to musicians who also produce their own music vs. how much credit the producer actually takes (which is usually far more than what was actually done). 

Another famous Icelandic musician is Sigur Rós. Their music also has an ambient-rock feel to it with breathy, echo-y vocal lines. I like their music because of their use of classical elements as well as minimalist techniques. Many of their songs have been used in movies and TV shows. Jónsi of Sigur Rós is particularly famous for his use of the bowed guitar. Their songs are performed in Icelandic. 

Another artist that I heard for the first time is Emiliana Torrini. Very much of an alternative sound (or indie rock as I prefer), her music borrows from elements of rock and pop. I listened to the album Tookah, and it was kind of a calming album. She makes use of acoustic guitar with synthesized keyboards and strings in the background; all of her albums I found are sung in English. 

Anther band I listened to are the Sugarcubes. Their style reminds me of The Cure. Like, a lot. I’m a huge fan of The Cure, so I was immediately drawn to their late-1980s/early-1990s sound, which is also sung in English. 

I’m also a huge fan of electronic/trance/house music, so when I listened to the music of GusGus, I liked what I heard right away. I would put this music in the trance category. Like so many other Icelandic musicians, his music has English lyrics. 

One band I was completely surprised was Icelandic is Of Monsters and Men. I had liked their song “Little Talks” for a while now, and it’s very popular in the US. I enjoyed the album that song is from, My Head is an Animal

Seabear is another indie rock/alternative rock band that I came across. I listened to their album We Built a Fire that I like very much. I think it’s a good album to listen to if you want to chill.  It’s also a good album to work by.

Iceland wouldn’t be doing its Scandinavian bloodlines justice if they didn’t create some metal and hard rock bands. Skálmöld is a metal band that merges typical metal music with some classical elements and mandatory screaming. Agent Fresco is a hard rock band that will actually soften its music in many of its songs. It’s an interesting sound and is a nice change. I kind of liked it. Dead Skeletons is a band that surprised me. I was expecting more screaming metal (I mean, come on, their name is Dead Skeletons). But it was like rock music with a drone underneath the quasi-chanting of the lyrics. I was pleasantly surprised at what I heard, and in fact, I really kind of liked them. It was different and almost trippy.

Up next: the food

Thursday, March 19, 2015


Much of Icelandic art, especially early Icelandic art, reflects their pristinely bleak landscape and their mythology. Icelandic mythology is so closely related to Norse mythology that it’s pretty much the only thing that comes up when you search for it. Many of these gods and characters from Norse mythology are fairly well known: Thor and his hammer (who is also the namesake of the word “Thursday”); Odin with his one eye and pair of ravens who brings him information and gave the world the runic alphabetic; Freyja, a sorceress who wears a feather cloak; Loki, a shape-shifting trickster god; and many others. Many of these gods, demi-gods, and stories are depicted in Iceland’s earliest art. It’s not a mythology I’m too familiar with, but I find it fascinating. I think I’d really like to read more about it next.

With a dichotomy of mountains and volcanic lakes, it’s the perfect backdrop for landscape painting, which is certainly a popular style. Iceland has some of the most remote land in the world, much of it untouched by very few humans. There are many artists that have emerged who tried to capture the beauty of this island country: Thórarinn Thorláksson, Ásgrímur Jónsson, Jóhannes Kjarval, Jón Stefánsson, and Júlíana Sveinsdóttir.  During the early days, many artists went to study in Copenhagen and brought back their newly-acquired skills to Iceland. 

by Thórarinn Thorláksson

Following European trends in the art world, some Icelandic artists began to delve into abstract art during the mid-20th century.  Other artists gravitated toward a variety of modern styles such as cubism and fauvism. Of course, after a while, artists started to veer back to figurative art.  Svavar Guthnasson, Nína Tryggvadóttir, Gunnlaugur Scheving, Louisa Matthíasdóttir, and Einar Hákonarson are some of the more prominent artists of the 20th century.

I have no idea what this is, but it looks terrifying. (It might be a nightmare rendition of a walrus.)
 Early Icelandic literature was closely related to Old Norse literature. In fact a lot of it was written in Old Norse. Like much of the literature during this period, different forms of poetry was pretty much the most prominent form of literature. In Iceland, there were three main styles of poetry that emerged. 

The Eddas were important Scandinavian documents that were divided into two parts: the Poetic Edda, which were a collection of poems and stories from about the 10th century, and the Prose Edda, a collection of Norse mythological stories and Icelandic poetry. 

Skalds were Icelandic poets who mainly wrote about kings and nobility.  These poems were generally thought to be historically accurate since no one at this time would ever think about writing something untrue about their leader. (My, how things have changed, haven’t they?)

After this guy gets done, he can go attack that "walrus" above.
Sagas were long, extended poems that told epic tales of Viking voyages, historical battles, exploration, etc. Between the 9th and the 13th centuries, these sagas were the main source of information regarding the history of this area, even though sometimes the authors would add in some mythological features into the storylines. However, I’m pretty sure that most people can figure out that dragons don’t exist, so this part is clearly an embellishment. (Perhaps Brian Williams and Bill O’Reilly could’ve learned this better.)

The first Bible translation was completed during the 16th century, as was a translation of John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” a couple centuries later.  (I read “Paradise Lost” many years ago, along with “Paradise Regained.” If you like long, epic poems steeped with deep religious themes, then by all means, read it. I read both, crossed them off my list, and moved on to books I enjoyed far more.)  There was a rise in sacred poetry as well as rímur, which is an epic poem that consists of rhymed alliterative verses of 2-4 stanzas.

 Starting in the 1800s, Iceland saw a literary revival. Jónas Hallgrímsson was considered to be the father of the short story in Iceland, and Jón Thoroddsen published the first novel here in 1850.  The romantic period was popular in Iceland as it was in other areas of Europe, and it was followed by realism and naturalism.  Einar Benedictson was a notable neo-romantic poet.  However, many Icelandic writers began writing in Danish during the 20th century including Halldór Laxness, the recipient of the 1955 Nobel Prize in Literature.  These days, crime novelist Arnaldur Indridason has reached international success with his works.  I do love a good crime novel. I think I’m going to have to see if my library (or the Kindle store) has any of his novels.

Up next: music and dance

Sunday, March 15, 2015


I have been fascinated with Iceland and have wanted to visit ever since I read about its hot springs as a kid. I remember seeing pictures in elementary school of people in their swim suits sitting in these hot springs with snow all around, and the steam from the hot springs would hang heavily in the air around them. It looked crazy, but at the same time, I wanted to try it. And then when I watched the 2013 version of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” I definitely wanted to visit since part of the movie took place and was partly filmed in Iceland. The landscape is absolutely beautiful in a lonesome kind of way. 


Common folklore surrounding Iceland’s name says that it was originally from the Old Norse Ísland, meaning “land of ice.” It was used as a deterrent to keep people from settling on the island, making people think that it was the island covered in ice.  Whereas Greenland was given its name to make people think it was actually green and to settle there instead. The truth is that Greenland is the one covered in ice and glaciers, not Iceland as its name makes you believe.   

Iceland is an island country bordering the North Atlantic Ocean and the Greenland Sea.  The island of Greenland lies to the west, and the Danish-controlled Faroe Islands lie to the southeast. The Hebrides Islands of Scotland lie just south of the Faroe Islands. The Norwegian island of Jan Mayen is about 370 miles north of Iceland. While it is politically considered a European country, geographically, it straddles the European plate and the North American plate. 

Celtic monks and Scandinavian explorers were the first people who arrive on the island.  However, Swedish Vikings were the first to navigate around the island.  When the Scandinavians, Scottish, and Irish were arriving in the island to settle it, roughly a quarter of the island was then covered in forests, compared to about one percent today. There was very little arable land on the island, and explorations in Greenland started to take place around this time as well. During the Middle Ages, it was controlled by a unified Scandinavia, and it was also during this time when the Black Death struck the island – not once, but twice.  King Christian III of Denmark introduced Lutheranism to the island after the Reformation was established on the European mainland. The 17th and 18th centuries dealt Iceland several hard blows: a number of volcanic eruptions devastated the island; Denmark imposed strict trade restrictions on Iceland; problems with pirates, famines, smallpox epidemics; and, diseases resulting in the deaths of nearly half the livestock in the country.  During the latter part of the 1800s, Iceland began the fight for its own independence. In 1918, Iceland became the Kingdom of Iceland, but remained special friends with Denmark. After WWII, they finally became the Republic of Iceland in 1944. The US set for forces in the country in 1951 as part of the Cold War, and I couldn’t believe that we finally moved the last of our forces out in 2006. (Why didn’t we hear about this on the news? This gives me no hope that we can remove our troops from any other place anytime soon.) The 1970s were filled with Iceland’s “Cod Wars” with the UK over how far out in the ocean their fishing rights go. Starting in the 1990s, Iceland started to establish itself as a significant member of the international community in politics and economics. 

Iceland’s capital city is Reykjavik, located on the island’s southwest corner. Literally meaning “bay of smoke,” it’s named in reference to the smoke emanating from island’s natural hot springs. Originally mentioned as farmland, it became a small settlement during the 9th century but wasn’t officially established as an actual town until 1786.  In comparison, it’s “founding” is only five years older than Washington, D.C. 

Historically, Iceland’s economy has depended a lot on the fishing industry, and they’ve had a significant impact on the whaling industry as well. These days, they have started to expand its industries a bit to include software, finance, and biotechnology, ecotourism (including whale watching). Before the global economic crisis of 2008, Iceland was the 7th most productive country in the world per capita. Iceland also capitalized on renewable energy, and their utilization for hydroelectric and geothermal power has made it the world’s leading producer of electricity. Because of Iceland’s cold environment and lack of arable land, the only vegetables produced here are potatoes and other green vegetables that are grown in a greenhouse.  They also produce a large amount of mutton and dairy products. This country also consistently ranks high in terms of having one of the freest markets, productivity, and most innovative. And unlike other countries (especially in North America and Western Europe), Iceland uses the flat tax. 

The vast majority of Icelanders speak Icelandic, which descended from Old Norse, a Northern Germanic language. The closest language to Icelandic is Faroese, the language spoken in the Faroe Islands. I think the coolest thing about Icelandic is their use of two symbols that were leftover from runic letters, namely the thorn [Þ] and the eth [Ð, ð], which sound like the “th” sound. (I wonder if I could just spell my name as Bð instead of Beth? Would anyone get it?) I had only previously seen these symbols when I studied Old English and learned IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet). In Iceland, English and Danish are required courses in school. Other languages you’ll hear spoken in Iceland are French, German, Swedish, and Norwegian.  A really fascinating thing I learned was about Icelandic names. Most people have a given name (“What will we call the baby?”) and a family name (your “last name”). But in Iceland, many people’s last names reflect the relation between themselves and their mother or father. It’s why you’ll notice a lot of last names will end in –dóttir (daughter) or -son (son) as in the last name Jónsdóttir or Grímsson. And phone directories are listed in alphabetic order by first name, not last name. 

Roughly three-quarters of the people here lay claim to attending the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland. It’s interesting that the current bishop is not only a woman, but the first woman to hold this position. There are a smaller number of people who practice other Christian denominations.  Iceland also has a small number of people who list Buddhism, Germanic neopaganism, Islam, or Bahá’í as their religion, and about 11% are unaffiliated or practice some other religion.  

Several years ago, I read a TIME magazine article about the deCODE Genetics project.  They were a pharmaceutical company that ran genetics testing on people in order to predict and help diagnose a variety of diseases. It turns out that since most of the people in the country had their genetics ran, there was a very cool side effect of this: now people can trace their genetics back over 1100 years. I also recently read that in 1975, 90% of the women in Iceland went on strike for their rights, and when I say went on strike, that’s exactly what they did: walked off the job, out of their homes, and essentially shut down the country. The very next year, their voices were heard. Parliament passed a measure ensuring equal pay, and five years later, they elected the first woman president. Iceland is quite the role model for getting things done. If they want something to change, they figure out a way to do it in a democratic way. It’s quite commendable, and I’m looking forward to finding out what other incredible things Iceland has done.

Up next: art and literature

Sunday, March 8, 2015


I think spring finally said hello.  After weeks of snow and ice and below-freezing temperatures, it finally got to 40 degrees the past two days, and this week will be in the 50s and 60s. Yeah, I foresee some productivity problems this week.

This was really good. It's better if it's spicy.
 I actually started cooking Hungarian food last week. I found a recipe for Lecso (pronounced “LEH-choh”) that sounded perfect, and I had most of the ingredients.  This easy stew is perfect for weeknights and doesn’t use a lot of ingredients. I started out sautéing onion and sweet peppers. I think you can add in hotter peppers, but I wanted to make sure my family would eat it, so I went for the sweeter ones instead.  Then I added in canned diced tomatoes, sugar, salt, and Hungarian sweet paprika, letting it simmer until it was thick.  There are several varieties of this stew, and I added in some smoked sausage to mine. Many times, people often serve this with fried eggs on top.  I served mine on top of couscous instead of rice, although I’m not even sure if they do that. I’m hoping because of the Ottoman influences on their culture, couscous is authentic at least somewhere in Hungary.  I liked it, although it was way better when I drizzled some sour cream on top and dusted it with ground cayenne pepper.  

This is the best thing that happened all day. Really.
Today, I’m making two breads, only because I couldn’t narrow it down.  The first bread I’m making today is Hungarian Cheese Batter Bread.  I started this by mixing my yeast in with the water and sugar and letting it proof. Then I combined some scalded milk and cream and once it had sit some to cool off, I mixed this in with my yeast mixture. I added in about a cup and a half of flour to this mix and stirred until it was smooth. Covering this, I let it rest for 45 minutes. The recipe calls for a 13”x9” pan, but I don’t have one (I’m not sure why I haven’t just went out and bought myself one by now?), so I used a regular loaf pan. It seemed to do the job just fine. I stirred in the rest of the flour, salt, paprika, butter, and pepper into my dough and mixed it until it was smooth. Then I poured in my cheese and oats, stirred it all together and put it in my loaf pan. After brushing the top with melted butter and sprinkling some of the oats on top, I let it rest for another hour.  At the end of this time, I put it in the oven for 30 minutes until it was golden on top. Although part of it stuck to the side of the loaf pan, subsequently tearing it a little when I pulled it out, it was an amazing bread.  It was full of flavor, the crumb was very loose, and the crust was just crispy enough to give it a nice texture.  I thought it went really well with the goulash.  

These are great for dipping. Look how beautiful they look on my stackable cooling racks. I love everything in this picture.
The other bread I made today was one that I felt compelled to make. After reviewing recipes, I felt that I couldn’t cook food from Hungary without making kifli.  Most of the recipes I saw were a sweet variety, but I found a recipe for what was called bakery crescents, or pék kifli.  I mixed my flour, sugar, and yeast together, adding in lukewarm milk, melted butter, sour cream, and salt and kneaded it until the dough comes together. Then I formed it into a ball, covered it, and let it rest for about an hour or so.  I pulled out some parchment paper and laid it on two baking sheets.  I finally took out my dough and divided it into two.  I took each half, rolled it out and cut out eight squares so that there are 16 squares in total.  Taking each square and turning it so it looks like a diamond, I rolled it up from the bottom point and curved it like a crescent and placed it on the parchment paper.  Once I did all 16 squares like this, I brushed the tops with melted butter and let them rise another 30-45 minutes. Just before I put them into the oven, I gave them an egg wash (mixing an egg yolk with a splash of water and brushing the tops). I baked these about 16-18 minutes until they were golden on top.  I think my dough was a bit on the tough side. Although these had a great taste, they were a little tough when rolled up. If you use these to dip in a stew or something, then it’s absolutely great because it’s less likely to fall apart in your stew.  My son and I thought they were great. 

Goulash with extra spaetzle noodles? Coming right up!
And finally, the main event. The reason we’re all here: goulash. There are about as many recipes and variations of goulash as there are Hungarians. This savory stew starts with sautéing onions in a large pot for about 5-8 minutes until they become translucent. Then I added in my stew beef, salt, and pepper and cooked uncovered until the meat has been browned. Of course, the spices are what makes this dish: I added in the Hungarian sweet paprika, marjoram, caraway seeds, and garlic and let it simmer for about two minutes.  The carrots and parsnips (my first experience with parsnips!) come next, along with about four to five cups of water. Once it gets to a boil, I reduced it and let it simmer for about 30 minutes. After this time, I added in some miniature red potatoes and let it cook for nearly 20 minutes. Then I added a can of diced tomatoes, a package of Bavarian spaetzle (in lieu of a small pasta called csiptke; Bavarian spaetzle is shorter than Farmer’s spaetzle), and some julienned sweet peppers (the julienned part is totally my decision). There were far more noodles than I intended. The bag was made of that cheap plastic and split when I opened it, and while I was pouring it in, all the noodles poured in at once. No noodle left behind, I guess. But since I love spaetzle, it wasn’t really a problem for me at least.  I did have to add another cup or two of water to the stew. Once everything simmered for another 5-10 minutes, it was ready to eat. This was a really good meal. And it’s the type of dish that can be reheated easily. I really thought the caraway seeds brought out a lot of flavor to the meat.  And we certainly have plenty of bread to eat and dip.  

Meals like this make me love doing this blog. My kids will thank me one day. 
I really liked everything I cooked/baked for Hungary.  Each recipe was a little different and very much a “comfort food” type of dish.  And I didn’t even get a chance to make the Esterhazy torte that I copied the recipe for. (Google an image of this. It’s amazing.) I’m sure that if I were to spend any extended time in Budapest, I’d probably gain five pounds a day.  I think if I were to actually visit Budapest, I would just spend my days walking from one restaurant to another restaurant on the other side of the city just so I can burn all the calories in time to eat again.  I learned a lot about this country and a lot of gaps were filled in.  I have some new favorite bands, some new favorite recipes, and some new cities and landmarks to add on my bucket list. And that brings us to the end of the H countries.

Up next: Iceland


Hungary has a strong musical history.  Many of the earliest music shares commonalities with certain ethnic groups in Russia as well as other traditions from China, Mongolia, and Native Americans and other Europeans. As Hungarians began to develop the idea of what it is to be Hungarian, their music reflected these changes as well, allowing for a distinction from other musical styles around it. One of the key features of Hungarian music is their use of pentatonic scales (which, to me, always sounds stereotypically Asian), and they also liked to transpose parts of the melody, usually or down a fifth. Another key feature of Hungarian music is their use of the ABBA style (not to be confused with ABBA, the Swedish musical group from the 1970s. Way different.), although many Hungarian composers preferred to use the theme and variations style.

There are three Hungarian composers who are widely known in the realm of music history: Béla Bartók, Zoltán Kodály, and Franz Liszt. Bartók is known for using Hungarian folk songs as the basis for many of the pieces he wrote. A lot of the folk music used came from the violin and bagpipe music of the Roma people. 

Although Kodály (pronounced Ko-dye) was a gifted composer, he was best known for his work as an ethnomusicologist and pedagogue. He is the namesake behind the Kodály Method of music education. It’s one of the methods many students remember learning in school throughout the world.  In fact, it’s built on the best teaching methods around the world in teaching music, and Hungarian music researchers helped combine these methods and adapt them to teaching music in Hungary. This method is what I learned on, and part of this method is built on learning solfège (do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do) and the hand symbols that go with it. Solfège in and of itself was around centuries before Kodály, and several cultures developed their own version of it. However, part of what the Kodály Method taught was using solfège with the concept of “movable do” (that solfège is used to teach the relationship between pitches, not to learn absolute pitches).  The Kodály Method also built on rhythm syllables as well, and once students understood these concepts well, then they were taught how to notate music. His contributions changed early music education throughout the entire world. 

Franz Liszt was not only a world-famous composer but also a gifted pianist and teacher. I love listening to his music, but I usually resent him for one reason: he often wrote music that only he was able to play. And that's fine, except that he had massively huge hands, so he often wrote intervals of 10ths. What normal person can play 10ths? Really? He is most famous for his Hungarian Rhapsodies, which I highly recommend listening to. 

Most Hungarian dances are danced to folk music, and several of these dances were specific to one region or another.  There are written records of folk dancing since after the Renaissance period, and several types of dances found in Hungary: ugrós (jumping dances from the Middle Ages, has ties to the Transylvania region), verbunkos (men’s solo dance stemmed from military recruitment practices of the Austro-Hungarian army), karikázó (type of circle dance performed by women), czardas (energetic dance from the 18th and 19th century), and the legényes (men’s solo dance from the Transylvania region).  

And that brings me to all the modern musicians I listened to recently. First of all, I suddenly turned into a 6-year-old boy when I came across the band called Superbutt.  However, their music is anything but childish.  Their hardcore rock/metal sound certainly didn’t disappoint.  The thing I liked about it is their change-ups. Yes, they can be loud. Yes, they scream at times. But they also are not afraid to play pizzicato for a few measures.  Quite impressed. Although I have no idea what's going on in the video above. It reminds me a little of of an updated version of the video for "Money For Nothing" by Dire Straits.  Guitarist Zoltán Báthory was named Golden God’s “Best Shredder” in 2010 and is most known for being one of the founding members of the metal band Five Finger Death Punch.  

One slightly older band I listened to is called P. Mobil. I couldn’t help but think of the cell phone company.  Or the oil company.  They definitely had a 1980s hair band feel with some pretty good guitar riffs that you can tell had a folk influence buried in there somewhere. 

There were a few indie rock bands that have become pretty popular in the past 5-10 years or so.  The first one is The Moog.  They kind of reminded me a little of The Killers. I really liked what I heard, and they sing in English.  Another indie band from Hungary is called Amber Smith.  Also singing in English, I can tell they have a lot of folk influence, especially American folk. I swear, at times they sounded like Fleetwood Mac. I really liked them. The Poster Boy is another indie band that I listened to.  They have some funk and blues elements in their music, but they merged it with rock so well that it works.

EZ Basic is an indie band with a 1990s sound in a lot of their songs. They also sing in English and merge some electronic sounds in with their rock music. Heaven Street Seven, who sings in Hungarian, is another band that does the same thing. I think it’s kind of fun music. Definitely puts you in a good mood; it’s the kind of music you can put on while you’re cleaning your house. 

I actually did find a Hungarian punk band! I love punk music and have since the mid-1990s. The band Alvin és a Mókusok has a very American punk sound, resembling early Green Day at times. They’re fun to listen to. 

And of course, Hungary also has its own hip-hop artists as well. I was kind of surprised with the number of artists and variety of musical styles. I listened to Ganxsta Zolee’s album Gyilkosság Rt where there were a lot of songs that mixed funk into their music. I also listened to Sub Bass Monster, which definitely had a lighter side to the music and the flow of the rhymes reminded me of early 1990s hip-hop music. Dopeman mixed a lot of rock and funk into his music, kind of reminding me of the Brazilian group Ultramen at times. However, by far my favorite artist I listened to is FankaDeli. The mix of classical, jazz, acoustic piano (which will get me every time) and near perfect flow for the style of music makes this so attractive to me. It reminds me a little of the styles of the Croatian group Elemental (who I absolutely love). Unfortunately, there aren’t any albums available through iTunes, but I did find there’s only one album (called Világegyetem) available for download through Amazon. I think I’m definitely going to download this.

Up next: the food

Thursday, March 5, 2015


Early Hungarian art stemmed from many of the traditions of Prince Árpád and the people of the Carpathian Basin. The most widely known style of art at the time Hungary was first established was the highly ornamental motif. They could be found in a number of places: around doorframes, decorative borders on scrolls, but mostly on clothing and decorations on their horses. It looked similar to Scandinavian or Celtic styles. 

Architecture in Medieval Hungary mimicked several of the main European styles of the day. Certainly after the Mongols came and destroyed many Hungarian cities, there was a great reconstruction period.  However, there are a few Romanesque and Gothic style buildings still standing from this era (mostly churches). 

The Renaissance brought along new styles in painting, sculpting, and architecture. Goldwork also began to become an important industry with the minting of coins and jewelry making. The Ottomans also had their influences on Hungarian art. Around this time, the use of what’s called a “cassette” became popular in architecture. (No, not like a cassette tape, as in the first cassette tape I saved up my money and bought myself was Bette Midler’s Some People’s Lives album. Look, it was 1990.) A cassette in architecture is like a highly decorated tile that goes on the ceiling. I think they’re awesome and would really like to do a room in my house with cassettes like this. 

Hungarian literature is primarily written in Hungarian, although early literature was written in Latin.  Before Latin was introduced by Stephen I around 1000AD, the people wrote in a runic script. It wasn’t used in any form of literature as we know it; it was mostly used in historical accounts. The earliest forms of Hungarian were in the form of a funeral rite and an epic poem. However, written Hungarian before the use of diacritical marks is difficult to read even for modern Hungarians. The first Hungarian translation of the Bible was created in the 15th century.  


The Renaissance and the Baroque brought along important changes and pieces of Hungarian literature.  During this time, the Hungarians fell under the rule of the Ottomans.  Poetry became very important and several poets grew to prominence. Most of the poems emerging from this time were love poems, religious poems, or war poems. Historical works were also still booming as well. 

Imre Kertész

The 19th and 20th centuries pushed Hungarian literature to the eyes of the world. These writers started to become noticed on a global scale. Some of the more well-known Hungarian writers to emerge during this time were Mór Jókai (dramatist, novelist, shares the same birthday with my husband), Antal Szerb (writer and scholar, one of the more important names of 20th century Hungarian writers), Sándor Márai (journalist, novelist, poet), Imre Kertész (novelist, survivor of a Holocaust concentration camp, winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize for Literature), and Magda Szabó (important Hungarian novelist, essayist, dramatist, poet).

Up next: music and dance