Iceland. It’s a land of contrasts, and while that normally refers to the landscapes, the unique culinary scene is just as varied. With most food and alcohol super expensive to buy since everything has to be imported (that whole island bit), most locals end up eating at home and pre-gaming until well after midnight before taking to the streets for a raucous night out (only on weekends, going out every day of the week would be too expensive). This dynamic has led to an interesting culinary affair, influenced by other nearby Nordic countries, but also a result of them trying to make due with what’s around to keep costs reasonable.
Here are some of those unique “only in Iceland” delicacies.
Trying to utilize their resources, the ocean is a major purveyor for chefs in Iceland, and as adorable as these brightly colored seabirds are, they are indeed a source of protein being that they’re easily accessible. Tasting what I can only describe as a salt lick, this is one bird that certainly did not taste like chicken and was promptly spit out.
Hákarl (Rotten Shark)
A national dish made from Greenland Shark that’s been fermented for four to five months, to say the pungent plate is an acquired taste is an understatement. Reeking of ammonia and fish oil, it’s readily available throughout the country and served year-round, usually cubed on toothpicks. You may be wondering why they choose to serve it rotten, and the answer is because they have to. It’s actually poisonous when fresh due to it’s high content of urea and trimethylamine oxide so the chemicals require processing to be consumed. If you’re gagging already, you should be.
Often served raw, I also sampled whale tartare with a fine blueberry sauce that tasted like ahi tuna albeit refreshingly fruity thanks to the topping. It was in fact one of the better dishes despite obviously being discouraged by animal activists who regularly campaign to get the protected creature taken off menus.
Brennivín “Black Death” Liquor
Aside from the strange food delicacies, by far the grossest thing I put in my mouth in Iceland was not a protein at all, but their signature drink appropriately named “Black Death.” A menthol flavored liquor with the syrupy texture of Jager, it definitely tastes like you’re drinking a cigarette. Made from fermented grain or potato mash and flavored with caraway to give it that black licorice taste, if you’re offered one of these “special occasion shots” (which surprisingly doesn’t translate to “mess with tourists” because the locals LOVE this stuff), plug your nose and hope for the best.
The Sampler Platter
For a sampling of a variety of local staples (if you can stomach it), opt for the Þorramatur plate, basically an Icelandic version of charcuterie with a smorgasbord of cured meats and fish. Typically included is that coveted shark meat, rams testicles, boiled sheep’s heads, and seal floppers, among other “delicacies.” Skál!