Icelandic Delicacies

by Katie Hammel on April 15, 2010

by Katie Hammel | April 15th, 2010  

whaleIn early times, the people of Iceland had to work hard to feed themselves. They ate what they could find and, as time progressed, developed some interesting ways of living off the land and sea to keep their bellies full.

These traditional foods , called “thorramatur“, are particularly popular with locals during the winter and include preserved foods like smoked and salted lamb, singed sheep heads, dried fish, smoked and pickled salmon, and fermented shark. You can find some of these served in restaurants or markets if you want to give them a try.

Fermented Shark

Perhaps the most famous of Iceland’s delicacies is a fermented shark called Hákarl, which is not for the faint of heart of weak of stomach. The shark meat is actually poisonous when fresh because of high uric acid content (sounds tasty already, doesn’t it?). The raw shark is put in a hole, covered with sand, gravel and rock (which helps press the acid out) and left to basically rot for several weeks. The smell is said to be much worse than the taste, but most people still gup it down along with a shot of the local liquor, brennivin.

Whale

Banned for two decades, minke whale (the smallest and most populous whale in the area) is now available again in many Icelandic restaurants. Though many tourists assume the meat will be blubbery, fatty, or slimy, it’s actually a red meat, albeit one that has a definite salty taste that makes it clear it hails from the sea. Whaling is still controversial in Iceland (each ship is only allowed to catch a certain number of whales per year), but trying whale is often tops on a tourist’s culinary agenda. It’s usually served grilled, often with a simple red wine sauce, though some more avant-garde offerings, like minke whale carpaccio or even whale wellington, are also cropping up at trendy restaurants.

Puffin

You know those cute little birds that you see swarming all over Iceland’s sea cliffs? Yes, you can eat those too. And like the minke whale, they too are pretty delicious. You’ll find smoked puffin (which tastes a bit like beef jerky) covered in brennivin sauce, grilled puffin, and fried puffin served with gravy. You may also see raw puffin hearts, which are less common, and usually only attempted by the more adventurous eaters.

Horse and Reindeer

Yes, even Rudolph and Mr. Ed are on the Icelandic menu, (As a horse-lover and equestrian, I could not bring myself to even contemplate trying horse meat, but I’ve heard it’s tough and fairly tasteless) though reindeer is much more common than horse (usually listed as “foal”). Reindeer live wild in the east of Iceland, and hunters are permitted to kill a certain number every year.

Plokkfiskur

Icelanders have traditionally relied on fish for much of their diet, and plokkfiskur was one more way to serve that fish, often using the leftovers from the previous day’s catch. The dish is made from cod (sometimes haddock or halibut are used) that is boiled and then mixed with milk, butter, flour, onion and potato until it forms a mash. The fish mash is often then topped with bearnaise or hollandaise sauce and cheese and then broiled until the top is a light brown crust. It’s traditionally served with dark rye bread.

{ 1 comment }

Jim Reynoldson August 9, 2010 at 10:29 am
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When my girlfriend and I visited in May/June, we made it a point to try a few of these dishes. One good way to do it (which we tried) is a tapas restaurant called Tapas Barinn (which I believe literally means “Tapas Bar” in Icelandic). They served an Icelandic Feast, which consisted of 5 tapas plates and a shot of Brennevin. The tapas dishes included puffin (which I found tasty, but very rich), whale (which was outstanding – like very good roast beef), lamb (can’t go wrong with Icleandic Lamb), and langoustine. This is a good way to go if you worry you may not like something enough to finish an entire serving (I probably couldn’t have finished even the small plate of puffin strips myself – it was simply too rich). I also got to try some hakarl when visiting the Westman Islands. The folks at Cafe Kro didn’t have it on the menu, but graciously let me try some from their private kitchen when I asked about it. Since the cubes of meat were frozen, they didn’t give off much odor – but the aftertaste is something that can only be experienced to be explained. I’m not sure I could have even tried a second cube of the shark without getting sick (although they offered, with a smile….I get the feeling Icelanders get a kick out of watching tourists take on the challenge of eating this truly disgusting delicacy). Yeah – if you try it, definitely have something to wash it down with…and eat something more appetizing afterward to ward off the aftertaste. Good luck!

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