Iceland – an ethereal land of glaciers, geysers, live volcanoes, dramatic waterfalls and ancient lava fields – matches its extreme geology with some bizarre traditional cuisine it would take a Viking to stomach.Pickled herring on rye bread with coffee — Photo courtesy of Sakkawokkie
The most famous of these is a dish that translates as “putrefied shark,” but is otherwise known as “rotten” or, more kindly, “fermented” shark. Eaten fresh, the shark is toxic. Fermented? Slightly less so. Anthony Bourdain once described it as “the single worst thing I’ve ever put in my mouth.”
Find fresh seafood along Reykjavik's waterfront. — Photo courtesy of Chelle Koster Walton
Like many of Iceland’s traditional dishes, rotten shark developed as a way to preserve food over a long, dark winter. Icelanders still partake of the “acquired taste” year-round, but especially during the country’s Thorri festival in January and February. To visitors, they recommend washing down the ammonic smell and fishy taste with Brennivin, a local schnapps known affectionately as “Black Death.”
The locals consider dried jerky-like fish a favorite snack – even the kids, who evidently are born with a gene that negates the smell of dead fish. Not all Icelandic food is disgusting, mind you, but let’s explore a few more oddities before turning to the good news about truly delicious New Nordic Cuisine.
Pickled Ram's Testicles
Pickled ram’s testicles and whole singed sheep’s head come next on the list. Nature lovers might be hurt to discover that minke whale meat is served in local restaurants, seared much like a tuna steak or cut up for kebabs. In homes, the adorable puffin birds that dot the craggy sea cliffs in summer become dinner. One Icelander said they are encouraged to hunt them, and they cook them like chicken. Others describe smoking and broiling methods. A non-Icelandic chef at a hydroponic greenhouse outside capital city Reykjavik prefers it raw and marinated.
Other Bizarre Eats
Icelandic horses graze the countryside — Photo courtesy of Chelle Koster WaltonReindeer meat is common in the north – not so unexpected – everything from reindeer burgers to pate. Horse meat from the unique stout and squat Icelandic horses also makes its way to the table.
Of course, seafood is huge, especially in the south. Lobster, mussels, langoustines, clams, shrimp and – available only at Vitinn Seafood Restaurant in the coastal town of Sandgerthi – a species of crab recently discovered, similar to peekytoe.
Pickled herring, no surprise, is popular, but at the breakfast table? A little surprising. Another breakfast staple that finds its way into desserts, beverages and sauces is the yummy Icelandic yogurt skyr (skeer). And on the topic of dessert, Icelandic ice cream almost negates the less savory dishes in the cuisine equation. Icelanders eat it year-round, but also love their locally roasted Kaffitar coffee. Not strictly dessert, rugbrauth, a dense and dark bread Icelanders traditionally baked in geothermal vents in the lava fields, tastes of molasses with hints of smoke and sulfur. A thick slather of Icelandic butter is requisite.
In the livestock category, sheep are most emblematic. Here’s the really good news: the lamb is the most tender and mild possible, thanks to the animals’ natural grazing and Iceland’s overall green growing practices.
Don’t miss trying an Icelandic hot dog, to which lamb gives a nice tweak. That bit of wild flavor with the pork and beef, plus the sassy snap of the casing make it a favorite of locals and tourists alike. Indeed, the line at Reykjavik’s Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur (Best Hot Dogs in Town) stand is interminably long. It’s famous for its “Clinton” – the style of hot dog the president ordered there in 2004 with only mustard. To do it the Icelandic way, ask for the works –sweet brown mustard, ketchup, raw onions, crispy fried onions (think French's) and remoulade sauce.