Icelandic dishes have long held a reputation for being a little bit what mainstream western cuisine would class as ‘obscure’.
Like all Nordic nations, the Icelandic diet comprises of whatever resources are readily available – fish from the sea around them, easy-to-farm livestock like sheep and cows, berries and veg. Most of the dishes have grown from a pre-fridge need to preserve food over the harsh, long winters and ensure that everyone has enough to eat.
So hold your breath (some of these are pretty smelly) and delve into the wonderful world of Icelandic dishes with us…
Image credit: Matt Campbell
We’ll start off with an absolute corker: Hákarl, otherwise known as fermented shark. If you’ve ever heard horror stories about the traditional food in Iceland, chances are it will have been about the ‘rotting’ shark that everyone eats, a dish in which the shark carcass used to be urinated on and then buried in the ground, only to be eaten many months later. Scrummy.
This is definitely a bit of an exaggeration, so let’s get a few things straight first about hákarl: firstly, no one wees on the shark anymore. This apparently used to be a thing before modern-day fermentation techniques were developed, and people actually did wee on the shark to preserve it. The good news is, no one does this anymore. The bad news is, the shark still smells like someone has. The ammonia smell comes from the acid leaving the shark meat (a process which makes the meat edible). Secondly, it’s fermented not rotting. There’s a difference. Thirdly, yes, this may be an important part of Icelandic heritage, but it is by no means an integral part of their daily diet. In fact, more visiting tourists probably eat it than locals.
Brennivín – the ‘Black Death’
While it doesn’t technically count as a ‘dish’ per se, if you’re going to be eating something like fermented shark or sheep’s head/testicles, it’s probably best washed down with some brennivín – a potent Icelandic take on schnapps known as the ‘Black Death’. Ominous.
Schnapps is a big thing in all Nordic countries, but brennivín is particularly strong stuff, with a high alcohol content and a strong caraway flavour. Perfect to warm you up on a cold evening, or wash away the sharp flavours of the fermented shark you’ve just eaten.
Harðfiskur (also known as stokkfiskur, stockfish) is sort of like a fish jerky, usually cod or haddock. It’s a satisfying snack which is chewy, salty and high in protein. The fish is wind-dried: it’s gutted, hung up on racks to dry (traditionally outside by the ocean) for weeks, and then beaten with a mallet to soften it into something a bit more edible. This preservation method has been used in Iceland for centuries, and means that harðfiskur can last in your cupboard for several years.
Before bread was a thing in Iceland (grain was scarce for a long time), Harðfiskur was used in much the same way, to accompany meals or spread with butter like a slice of bread. Nowadays Harðfiskur is eaten plain from the bag as a snack (it makes for great drunk food or to give you energy when hiking), but the classic Icelandic way of eating harðfiskur is still to spread butter on top of it, which helps the soften the dry texture.
50 shades of lamb
Image credit: Matt Campbell
Lamb is such an important part of the Icelandic diet that we could probably make an entire list based purely on lamb dishes – it’s used for everyday meals and special occasions, and is normally slow-roasted or made into a hearty stew.
Sheep were imported to Iceland by the original settlers, and to everyone’s surprise, they survived. These hardy animals roam the hills feeding on wild plants, berries and even seaweed, and have now gained a reputation for being some of the tastiest lamb on the planet.
Dishes like hangikjöt take the natural flavours of the lamb and enhance this by smoking the meat with birch or sheep-dung. Don’t let the idea of ‘shit-smoking’ put you off – on an island where trees are scarce, sheep dung is used regularly for fuel. The meat is hung in a smoking shed where it is smoked with a mixture of dung and hay (this has been recently seen in the UK on Masterchef the Professionals, where semi-finalist Matt Campbell used this technique in one of his dishes). The meat is then boiled and served simply – either hot or cold with rye flatbread, or potatoes, peas and béchamel sauce.
Sheep head & rams testicles
Image credit: Matt Campbell
And onto the more obscure of the lamb dishes…
Back when food was scarce and sheep farmers were poor, every last edible part of the sheep was used, and to some extent, this tradition still stands. Lamb dishes in Iceland come in a whole host of different shapes and sizes and the more bizarre include pickled ram’s testicles and svið – boiled sheep’s head. The sheep head itself tends to freak out non-natives, but the great news is that if you’re a fan of this Icelandic delicacy, you can also get your hands on something called viðasulta. This is basically ‘sheep head jam,’ made from chopped-up head which is cooked and then pressed into molds, to create a sort of terrine. This is traditionally spread on top of rye bread. Flavour town.
Icelandic rye bread
If the idea of fermented shark and boiled sheep head is putting you off Icelandic cuisine, come and find some solace with rúgbrauð – icelandic rye bread. Like all Nordic countries, Iceland loves a good rye bread, but this one is made with a twist. Sugar is added to the mix, which creates a spongy, cake-like texture and a slightly sweet taste once the rye bread is finished cooking.
But the best part about rúgbrauð is the unusual way it is cooked. Traditionally, two methods are used; the first involves the dough being left in a pot on the embers of your fire overnight. The second is the now famous hverabrauð – literally ‘hot-spring bread’. This traditional Icelandic bread-making method involves finding a thermal spring (there are plenty around in Iceland), digging a hole nearby and burying your rye dough in a special pot or wooden cask. This is then left for around 24 hours, by which time the geothermal energy from the spring has baked your loaf. Serve warm with butter and lava salt. Heavenly.
For the rest of the world, skyr has really taken off in a big way over the last few years, but for Icelanders this cultured dairy product has been a regular part of daily life for yonks (like actually thousands of years). Skyr is totally unique to Iceland, and it’s a huge part of Icelandic food culture; most people start the day with skyr for breakfast, and it’s eaten throughout the day too.
It’s usually served with cream, berries or jam, which sounds a bit funky as skyr is technically classed as a cheese. However it’s more like a smooth, creamy yoghurt with a slight tangy flavour. These days, you can buy pre-mixed pots in the supermarkets in a whole variety of different flavours like vanilla, blueberry or even liquorice if you’re feel adventurous (and disgusting).
If you’re a fan of liquorice, this could be your idea of heaven, but for the rest of us it’s a very confusing concept. Why would you take something beautiful and pure like ice cream and mix it with something like liquorice? Because you’re Icelandic, that’s why.
Iceland has an obsession with lakkrís – liquorice sweets have dominated the confectionary aisle in Icelandic supermarkets for years and years. It can come in all shapes and sizes; from traditional salt liquorice to liquorice lozenges, or disguised in liquorice-flavoured bars of chocolate or gummy sweets. Frankly, it’s a minefield.
It’s even put into cakes and meringues, but if you’re going to try anything liquorice-flavoured whilst in Iceland, you should probably try liquorice ice cream. This sweet and salty combination is a popular treat with locals (who eat a surprising amount of ice cream considering the average temperature in Iceland is -1000 degrees centigrade), and if anything is going to sway you towards enjoying liquorice, it’ll probably be this.
This list is just the tip of the iceberg… Icelandic cuisine is completely different to anything else in the world – even its Nordic neighbours – and this is what makes it so exciting. There are a ton of weird and wonderful Icelandic dishes to try if you want to visit (we haven’t even touched on whale or puffin, but that’s a story for another day…). Our advice? Keep an open mind and try anything that you come across! Although you do get a free pass on the fe