This is a list of traditional Icelandic food - some of which may not be to your liking.
Whereas a few traditional Icelandic dishes are considered a delicacy and some are commonly eaten by locals AND tourists, there are some dishes you might not want to eat in Iceland, unless you like a challenge - some people even go as far as saying it's the world's most disgusting food! Luckily though, Iceland also boasts some of the world's most delicious food - especially when it comes to lamb or seafood.
I thought it was time to update this list and put in more information about each dish.
For centuries, Icelanders had to smoke, pickle or dry their food in order to preserve it through the harsh winters. As a result, the traditional Icelandic food mainly consists of seafood and lamb that's gone through some preservation method.
Fresh fruit and vegetables are a fairly new addition to the Icelandic cuisine (only from last century!). Today the country prides itself on fresh ingredients and there are a number of fine dining restaurants in the country, as well as a Food and Fun Festival, where international chefs use Icelandic ingredients to come up with some delicious treats.
But if you want to experience something a bit more traditional, then look out for the following food items:
1. Hákarl - Shark
You'll probably hear that the traditional way of fermenting the shark is to bury it in the ground and then urinate on it before letting it rot for some months. This is not true!
The shark does actually smell of ammonia, which is where the urban myth comes from. It has been cured with a particular fermentation process, consisting of burying the shark underground and hanging it to dry for four to five months. This is done to get rid of acid in the flesh which makes it impossible to eat fresh. So the shark is not rotten (which some people believe) but fermented, there's a bit of a difference.
The result is, uhm, a rather acquired taste. Connoisseurs of very strong cheese may take a liking to it on the first bite. For others, well, lets just say it's not a common dish anymore. Mostly the older generation in Iceland still eats it and enjoys it. You can get a sample at Kolaportid flea market on the weekends in the food section for a small fee. They just love selling samples to tourists to watch their faces turn sour! For the ones that are extra hardcore, rinse it down with a shot of Brennivín!
2. Brennivín - Black Death
(Photo credit: Iceland Magazine)
Brennivín can be directly translated as 'burning wine' - although it's mostly marketed as 'Black Death'. Brennivín is a schnapps made from fermented potatoes and caraway. It tastes strongly of caraway, but it is mainly a rapid delivery system to oblivion, which, if you are eating fermented shark and sour ram’s testicles, is probably not such a bad thing.
3. Súrir hrútspungar - Sour ram's testicles
That brings us to ram's testicles, this is a tricky one. Iceland used to be a very poor country, full of poor farmers that would make the most of anything they could eat. So, that includes the testicles of the ram. To preserve them through the winter, they were soured. I don't really think I need to say much more about this. This is not a common dish anymore - but I have tried it once before. I don't want to do it again.
4. Hot Spring Rye Bread
Lets move to something a bit more tasty.
The Icelandic rye bread is very popular in the country. It's a dark bread, that's got a very particular taste, that's slightly sweet. Nonetheless, it's not a pastry and is mostly eaten on its own with butter, accompanying fish or hung and smoked lamb (hangikjöt - see below). One option in cooking this bread is to put the dough into special wooden casks in the ground close to a hot spring and pick it up the next day. Absolutely delicious!
5. Harðfiskur - Dried fish
Another popular food item is the dried fish, usually cod or haddock. This is very popular amongst Icelanders - and some foreigners. It's sort of like a 'fish jerky'. Icelanders eat tonnes of this every year with butter on top, as the texture of the fish is very dry and the butter makes it softer. You need to chew each bite very thoroughly before swallowing it! It's very rich in protein, 100g have about 80-85% of protein in it. It's one of my favourite Icelandic foods and I recommend you try it, it's either going to be a love or hate relationship!
6. Svið - Sheep's head
My mother's favourite food/delicacy is a sheep's head. You can get it pre cooked in a small grocery store called Melabúðin in the west part of town, or frozen in pretty much any supermarket. The whole head is eaten, with the exception of the brain (which is considered a delicacy in France!) The cheek and tongue are the best part. Some people think the eyes are the best part. Seeing as it's lamb or mutton, it just tastes exactly like lamb or mutton. The presentation is mainly what throws people off.
At the "Fljótt og Gott" ("Fast and Good") caféteria at the BSI bus terminal in Reykjavik, it is available daily, and can be bought at the drive-through counter. You can also get sviðasulta (sheep head jam) - which is constructed by chopping up the meat from cooked sheep heads, pressing it into moulds, and then cooling it. That's eaten as a bread topping.
7. Slátur - Blood Pudding
Slátur literally means 'slaughter'. It's a dish made out of sheep's innards, blood and fat. This is a dish that's very regularly served with the sheep's head. It's Iceland's answer to black or white pudding - or the Scottish haggis. Blood pudding is also served at many gatherings along with sweet rice pudding, which is a slightly odd combination.
There are two types of slátur: Blóðmör (blood pudding) or lifrarpylsa (liver sausage). Blóðmör resembles English/Irish black pudding and lifrarpylsa resembles Scottish haggis, although the Icelandic slátur is much smoother in texture. Some people like to eat their slátur with sugar sprinkled over it. Personally, I'm not a fan of it, I don't like the fat texture- but many Icelanders, young as well as old, couldn't disagree more!
8. Hangikjöt - Hung & Smoked Meat
(Photo credit: Lambakjöt.is)
A delicacy that's mostly eaten during Christmas. The meat (lamb or mutton) is smoked, either with birch or dried sheep dung. It is then usually boiled and served either hot or cold in slices with peas, potato mash and a white sauce called 'uppstúfur' (similar to béchamel sauce).
Often a thin cracker type bread, laufabrauð (leafbread) accompanies it. In recent years, 'twice smoking' the meat has become popular, that is eaten raw - much like Italian prosciutto and it is very tasty. You can also buy slices of hangikjöt in supermarkets to eat as a topping on bread.
9. Laufabrauð - Leaf bread
This is a very thin circular 'bread' - similar to a poppadom in texture. It is differently flavoured from poppadom though and eaten with butter. The laufabrauð is fried in hot oil but before it's fried a pattern is cut into it, which is often done as a family Christmas tradition. There are many traditional patterns - but this can also be a way for you to show your creative side!
10. Saltfiskur - Salted Fish
(Photo credit: Vísir hf)
One of the methods used to preserve food was to salt it. And then I mean SALT it. The fish would be completely covered in salt, which dries up the fish as well. Before cooking it, it needs to be soaked in water for hours or even 2-3 days, the length depending on how big the fish is, how much of the salt you want to get rid of and how often you change the water.
Today, you can buy 'lightly salted fish' - which doesn't need to be watered out. That one doesn't give you the same taste or texture as the 'properly' salted fish. Traditionally the fish would just be boiled and served with potatoes and rye bread but today it's popular to cook it in a Spanish or Italian style, with tomatoes and olives for example. Icelandic salted cod remains one of Iceland's biggest exports and is a popular delicacy in Portugal, Greece and Spain.
11. Kæfa (Paté)
A favourite to layer onto bread. The Icelandic kæfa is mainly made out of mutton and is pretty much identical to a paté - but you can get it in various forms, smooth or coarse.
12. Whale meat
(Photo credit: Rúv)
It is worth mentioning here that the only whale type consumed in Iceland is minke whale (which has never been considered endangered!)
Whale meat can both be eaten raw or cooked. If you cook it (or have it cooked for you), you need to make sure it isn't cooked too much because then it becomes dry. Whale meat is red meat, similar to a beef steak - but softer and leaner than beef. It's often described as a cross between beef and tuna (although it's not fishy at all!) It's delicious raw, eaten like a sushi with wasabi and soy sauce - but equally good when cooked rare and served with all the trimmings you'd normally have with a beef steak. Yummy.
13. Gellur (Cod tongues)
(Photo credit: Mbl)
When cooked in an exciting way, such as au gratin as you can see above, gellur can be quite tasty.
On the other hand, a traditional method of cooking gellur is just by boiling them. Not as tasty.
Gellur are often mistaken to be fish tongues, but actually they're a fleshy, triangular muscle behind and under the tongue. All good fish mongers used to have them, they are white and slimy, although they're not as common anymore. I haven't seen this food since I was a kid - but I remember distinctly disliking them. It's time to try them in a restaurant!
14. Hvalspik - Blubber
Hvalspik means 'whale fat'. This is boiled and cured in lactic acid. It's basically blubber and it used to be one of Iceland's main delicacies, although you'd be hard pressed to find anyone that eats it today.
15. Kútmagar - Fish stomach
Basically this is a fish stomach stuffed with fish liver and boiled with or without rye. In short, it's a fish belly with guts in it. To be honest, I'd never heard of it before writing this article, assuming it's not common at all anymore (and by the sound of it, I'm not surprised!)
16. Fiskibollur - Fishballs
Fiskibollur are basically just balls of fish and onion or potato (similar to meatballs). You can buy them cheaply pre-made in supermarkets where they come either in a tin or vacuum packed. A much better alternative would be to make your own fish balls as the ones in supermarkets aren't very exciting. There's no distinct taste to them, they're just a bit bland.
17. Lundi - Puffin
(Photo credit: The cooking frog blog)
Puffin can both be boiled in milk sauce or smoked. Personally I've only ever tried smoked puffin and it's a proper delicacy, found in restaurants all over the country. Puffin is a national dish in the Westman Islands, where the largest puffin colony in Iceland is.
18. Kjötsúpa - Meatsoup
(Photo credit: Life of Lekker)
The traditional Icelandic meat soup is a hearty and delicious clear soup filled with chunks of lamb, potatoes, carrots, onions and swede. I've never come across anyone that doesn't like it (excluding vegetarians and vegans).
19. Fiskisúpa - Fish soup
Icelandic fish or seafood soup varies from one house to the next one. The fish soup is most commonly cream based and the one that I make is a special recipe from my mother that includes a bunch of blue cheese and curry.
I also had one in a restaurant in Ísafjörður which is a close second best I've had! There is such an abundance of fresh fish and seafood on offer in Iceland that you're sure to taste the best fish or lobster soup of your life in Iceland!
(Photo credit: Skyr Iceland)
To conclude, I'll mention the one thing pretty much every foreigner takes an instant liking to. No list about traditional Icelandic food would be complete without mentioning 'skyr'.
Skyr is a low-fat dairy product, that resembles yoghurt but is still very different from yoghurt. It's very rich and creamy - but still contains hardly any fat! It's a product that's unique to Iceland and is very popular among locals and foreigners. Many desserts have been made from skyr and recently it's been making its way abroad, as you can now buy skyr in some other Nordic countries as well as in Wholefoods in the US!
P.S. Not exactly traditional (or, a very new tradition) - but checking out the Icelandic liquorice - and alcoholic liquorice drinks - is not such a bad idea. The Icelandic liquorice is much sweeter than the one you may be used to and you can get it in a variety of chocolate bars!