Tex-Mex

How Icelandic Yogurt Made Its Way Into Tex-Mex

May 23, 2018

I grew up in a small town in Northern Iceland, only 60 miles from the Arctic Circle, where boiled fish and lamb stews were on the table most days of the week. A place where pizza was served on weekends and special occasions only, and lime was considered an exotic fruit.

Everything changed when hard taco shells hit the shelves at the supermarket in the early ‘90s. Flavorsome (though usually very dry) ground beef, shredded napa cabbage, and chunky salsa from glass jars knocked me off my feet when I took the first crunchy bite of that then-elusive food: tacos.

Tex-Mex took Iceland by storm. Photo by Katrín Björk

Tex-Mex took the Icelandic nation by storm, a gale of cumin, coriander, and chiles. Spices that had never before been staples in our kitchens had won over Italian basil and oregano, now limp and much less exciting. When soft tortillas and pickled jalapeños made their way into the mix a couple years later, fajitas officially became a thing and everyone was floored. Every restaurant in town started dishing up sizzling plates of spicy, caramelized meat-laden tortillas.

Fajita Fridays, we called it.


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But the most interesting thing about the fajita’s explosive migration to Iceland was that we never tried to make it our own. Nobody tried to hijack these masterpiece meals to make them more “Nordic,” like, say, tacos with beets and dill, or lamb with wild berries. We merely latched ourselves onto the perfect culinary artifact that had traveled from Mexico to Texas, through the U.S., and across the Atlantic and somehow onto our dinner tables in Iceland, which had previously only known pizza and boeuf béarnaise. Maybe Tex-Mex was too foreign to attempt adjustments. Or maybe it was just too delicious to need any tweaking.

Still, as a writer and a cook, in the kitchen at least, I’m always using what I grew up eating, mixing and matching the myriad cultures of my life to bring new things to my table. That’s how skyr made its way into my family’s fajita recipe.

Tex-Mex took the Icelandic nation by storm, a gale of cumin, coriander, and chiles.

Skyr is an ancient Icelandic yogurt-esque product (that’s actually more akin to cheese) brought to the island by vikings over 1,100 years ago. It has quite a dry consistency and is very sour, packed with protein and very little fat and sugar. That's because it’s made from skim milk after the cream atop has been floated off to make butter. Cultures are added to the skim, and then the resulting yogurt is strained to remove its whey.

In the past 10 years, skyr has traveled a wonderful journey around the world and can now be found in most supermarkets. It’s a great breakfast, and tastes lovely in smoothies and salad dressings. But most importantly, it’s a fabulous meat tenderizer.

Using yogurt is, in my humble opinion, the best way to tenderize meat, especially since overly acidic, vinegar-based marinades can have the opposite effect and instead toughen the meat it’s meant to soften. Even enzymatic marinades such as pineapple, papaya, and ginger, if done wrong, can quickly turn meat to mush. For this reason (and not just because I’m Icelandic), I’m loyal to this dairy and firmly believe in active bacteria for breaking down tough protein to make tender, moist (!) meat.

And the best part of using skyr? When grilling, the yogurt caramelizes in the heat, giving the meat a nice crust and a wonderful, slightly tangy flavor.

4 Comments

Eric K. May 23, 2018
Katrin, I loved learning about Iceland's discovery of Tex-Mex. Thanks for sharing!
 
Author Comment
Katrín B. June 28, 2018
Thank you for showing my nordic heritage such an interest, Eric <3
 
Hana A. May 23, 2018
Can't wait to try a skyr marinade this summer! Your fajitas sound lovely, Katrin. I think my Swedish husband might protest to the usual "Taco Friday" menu, but I'm sure we can win him over. ;)
 
Author Comment
Katrín B. June 28, 2018
Hahahahaha :D Keep me posted on how it goes and thank you for you kind words, Hana.