A tasty twist

Alright then: chances are you have a vague idea about Iceland’s ‘crazy’ food culture that features some of the seemingly freakiest food on the planet. Allow us to stop you right there.

Sure, these ‘delicacies’ exist, but Iceland offers so much more. It’s all about farm-fresh ingredients, delicious dairy and seafood to die for. Local food heritage makes a virtue of optimising resources by using innovative preservation techniques, be it salting, pickling, smoking or even burial underground. Above all, the traditional foods are rich, diverse, imaginative and testimony to the innate capacity of human beings to adapt, survive and thrive.

In modern times, a special mention goes to the Slow Food Movement that prioritises home-grown food over imports and revives old recipes for a whole new world.

Dig in!

Secrets of the sea

Given that Iceland is synonymous with the sea, it’s obvious to start with the fish dishes on the menu. To begin with there is harðfiskur, aka dried fish, a much-loved (and easily found) delight best eaten as a quick snack, smeared with delicious Icelandic butter. It is usually made from haddock or cod that is cleaned, air dried and then torn into strips. Another popular choice is wolffish.

Cod (þorskur in Icelandic) is a delicacy. In the past the cheeks and tongues were the favourite bits (because the rest was all exported), but today the cod fillets are a favourite too.

Other popular fish on the menu include: lúða (halibut), steinbítur (wolffish), sandhverfa (turbot), síld (herring), skarkoli (plaice), and skata (skate). Come summer you can try silungur (freshwater trout) and villtur lax (wild salmon) or Eldislax, aka farmed salmon.

Rækja (prawn), hörpudiskur (scallop) and kræklingur (blue mussel) are on offer too. And while you are at it, be sure to try the Norwegian lobster, or scampi (humar). Höfn, in Southeast Iceland, is particularly well-known for humar and even has an annual lobster festival.

Plokkfiskur is a ‘safe’ traditional dish for visitors to try. Boiled fresh cod or haddock filets, sometimes with some smoked fish as well, and mashed together with potato, onion, and creamy white sauce and served with ryebread. Traditional comfort food at its yummiest. Be sure to season with plenty of white pepper!

The butcher’s best

The four-legged variety of meats include tender, juicy lamb from animals reared on chemical-free vegetation as they wander the hills unsupervised all summer long. Take your pick from the pan-fried variety, smoked lamb (hangikjöt), or lamb fillets. Also be sure to check out the traditional lamb soup, kjötsúpa. Beef and pork are also readily available. There’s also foal fillets (horse meat), and reindeer steaks from the wild beasts that roam the eastern highlands available on assorted menus. Reindeer hunting is heavily regulated and monitored.

The winged variety of meats include a diversity of birds that is hard to beat. Lundi, or puffin, has traditionally been plentiful and served smoked or broiled, but (statutory warning!) they are suffering a population crisis due to climate change and are hunted much less today.

Seasonally exotic names like heiðagæs (pink-footed goose) in autumn, and rjúpa (ptarmigan), a Christmas delicacy are interesting to try. The latter is a favourite because it is relatively easy to hunt and does not migrate in winter. Its hunting today is also strictly regulated. Svartfugl (not actual blackbirds, despite the translation) are in fact guillemot, and something you can try as well.

Despite all the options, chicken remains most popular. Turkey is still a relatively new discovery in Iceland but has gained popularity in recent years.

Sweet stuff

For sweet treats, Iceland has you covered. Pastry, choux or leavened, is second to none and is accompanied by endless creative innovations with different toppings and fillings.
Next there’s kleina, a distinct twisted doughnut flavoured with cardamom or vanilla and usually eaten with coffee.

If you’re in Iceland for the Monday seven weeks before Easter (the day before Shrove Tuesday and the start of Lent), be sure to take part in Bolludagur, or Cream Puff Day. It’s exactly what it sounds like and the bakeries that day are full of delicious options rich with jam, cream and chocolate. Don’t miss out on rjómabollur, the traditional cream bun, available all year round.

Icelandic rye bread is a dark and distinctly sweet bread, but definitely not a cake! It is commonly served with salmon, Arctic char, smoked lamb, or plokkfiskur creamy fish stew. It is also nice eaten on its own with butter. The breads are cooked in steam for many hours—sometimes in natural geothermal vents.

Skyr is the darling of the Icelandic kitchen and has become an international hit in recent years. At home, it’s been enjoyed for many, many centuries. Even if you’ve tried foreign imitations, try the real Icelandic skyr as well. We think you’ll be impressed. Skyr is technically more of a cheese than a yoghurt. It is fashioned from pasteurised skimmed milk and a centuries-old Icelandic bacterial culture. Traditionally served with milk or cream and sugar, often for breakfast, it is a staple almost all Icelandic kids have grown up on. Today, it comes in all sorts of flavours that can be eaten straight from the tub.

Then there’s the ‘scary stuff’…

Greenland shark is famous for being poisonous if eaten unprepared. Great start for a ‘delicacy’, right? It is prepared through a long, drawn-out fermentation process of 6 to 12 weeks to make it non-toxic, followed by a drying process of four to five months and the final product is strong and pungent to put it mildly. Some absolutely love it. Most do not.

Served in small cubes as a snack, it is also an important part of the tradition called Þorrablót, a mid-winter feast with traditional food. Hákarl is offered in many bars and cafés in Reykjavík and around the country.

Also popular at Þorrablót midwinter feasts: hrútspungar are ram testicles (statutory warning). A direct result of the country’s poverty in the past and the need to make the most of anything that could be eaten. To preserve them through the winter, the testicles are compressed into loaves and soured in whey. Today, though, you have the choice of soured or fresh options. Lucky you.

Sheep’s head, or svið, comes with yet another statutory warning! This is basically a sheep’s head cut in half lengthways, singed to remove the wool, boiled sans brain, and served along with mashed potato and turnip, the most abundant veggies. It is another creation from tougher times when no part of the animal was allowed to go to waste. Furthermore, it’s actually pretty good if you close your eyes. Sheep face is also available in jellied, spreadable form, called sviðasulta.

Bon Appétit!

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