It’s been a long trip through Iceland. We hiked up volcanoes, crossed glacial rivers, and drove hundreds of miles in the process, but there is still one dimension of Iceland that I have yet to cover: food. I ate a lot during this trip, and whenever possible, I tried to incorporate something "authentically Icelandic" into my meal. The following five foods were the outliers from my time in Iceland, but I'd be lying if I said they all tasted good. In fact, it was mostly the opposite.
5 Icelandic Foods You Might Actually Be Better Off Without
(Fermented Shark Meat)
We’ll start here because it routinely tops the lists of outlandish foods that can only be found in Iceland: Kæstur Hákarl. In Icelandic, the name translates to “treated shark.” “Treated” is the key word here. According to local lore, the fermentation process for shark meat, traditionally, went something like this:
- The meat is procured from a shark
- The meat is then urinated on by a group of burly Vikings
- The meat is buried in the ground
- The meat is then left in the ground for roughly 6 months
- The meat is dug up, and, of course, eaten
And that’s fermented shark meat. I don’t think that urination is a part of the process any longer (or, at least I hope not!), but modern science has found a way to make sure that Hákarl is still just as disgusting as always. When I arrived in Reykjavík, seeking out this dish was one of my first orders of business.
The real problem with this dish that it smells absolutely raunchy! Think about the feeling of swimming in the ocean, and accidentally swallowing a large gulp of saltwater when a wave unexpectedly hits you in the face. There is a moment where you feel like you might throw up, right? Well take that moment, and imagine that experience as if it were a smell. Then multiply that by 50. That’s what Hákarl smells like.
Our Swedish waitress was pretty amused as she watched me put the tiny pieces of meat up to my mouth, smell it, and then gag. I repeated this process 6 or 7 times before I finally found the courage to actually put it in my mouth… There’s a sex joke in here somewhere. Anyway, the texture wasn’t terrible. It tasted less bad then it smelled… but still not good.
2. Hvál Biff
Since eating this strange dish, I've heard conflicting accounts of whether or not it's okay to eat whale, or if it's an environmental "no-no." I sat down to this meal mostly ignorant, so it'd be completely on me if eating whale turned out to be a terrible thing. But I did know this much: Minke Whale is the only species of whale that is eaten in Iceland, and this species of whale is nowhere near the endangered list. In fact, the IUCN has put this whale into their "Least Concern" category, which is the lowest possible threat level. This means that they are, as a species, doing relatively well. But there are two sides to this story...
While Minke Whales are not facing extinction any time soon, many condemn the consumption of whale meat in general, as the practice of whaling is widely considered to be pretty barbaric. It's actually a blood bath, and has pushed many species of whale to the brink of extinction. However, Minke Whale is not one of those species, so I decided to give it a go. I'll try anything once. So let's start talking about how it tasted...
Whale is a lean red meat. The closest thing that I can compare it to is maybe roast beef... but it has some weird undertones to it. Honestly I was wasn't a fan, but I can understand why other people would like them I suppose.
Dried Fish. This is apparently an Icelandic classic, but this one I really just do not understand. It wasn't that it tasted bad (although I'd be lying if I said it tasted good), it was that it was impossible to chew! And I don't mean that it was chewy—it was tough. It was tough like chewing a furry piece of rubber.
Eventually I was able to gnaw off a weird little shard of this dish, but from there things didn't get a whole lot easier. I had to force this dish into submission with my molars before I could swallow it, but it went down swinging! Eating this dish was a lot of effort for a few small, salty, stringy bites of fish, but I did it.
Can I check this off my list now?
Below the dried fish is pictured in the small bowl. It was served with butter and traditional Icelandic rye bread, which were nice distractions from the main dish.
Brennivín, nicknamed “Black Death,” is the quintessential Icelandic liquor. The name “Black Death makes it sound a lot scarier than it actually is though. It has nothing to do with anything even remotely morbid. It was just an ominous name that was given to the drink during Iceland’s prohibition period as deterrent. This name stemmed from the white skull that had historically been a part of the label. However, that skull has since been replaced with a picture of Iceland, thus diminishing Brennivín's association with death to a mere suggestion.
Brenivínn is made mostly from potatoes, but its defining flavor is a hint of caraway. It normally ranges from 75 to 80-proof (that’s 37.5 to 40% alcohol content), which is pretty standard for hard liquor. Honestly, I didn’t think it tasted all that different from normal vodka. However, my friends back in Boston seemed to disagree. I brought a bottle back with me, and they loved it! Much more in fact than the Raki from Istanbul I had brought them before. So if a whole room full of my less-travel-obsessed friends liked it, you’ll probably like it too. Give it a try!
This is it folks, the main event.
Svið, or Sheep Head, came about out of sheer thriftiness. You see, Iceland was not always the Nordic beacon of prosperity that it is now. There was a time when Iceland was one of the poorest countries in Europe, and it was during these tough economic times that families could not afford to let any part of their slaughtered sheep be wasted.
Svið is prepared by slicing a sheep’s skull in half, burning the hair off of the skin, and scooping out the brain (because apparently the impoverished Icelanders of the past weren’t THAT desperate). So, during my meal, I ate the tongue, the jaw meat, and of course, the eyeballs. BIG thanks to Matthildur & Gummi for preparing this meal!
Review: Sheep Jaw
The sheep’s jaw meat was very good! It wasn’t much different from meat anywhere else on the body. So I don’t have anything too crazy to report here.
Review: Sheep Tongue
Seeing the tongue be cut out of the sheep’s skull was pretty disgusting, and that definitely colored my experience. The meat itself didn’t taste overly bad. If I hadn’t have known what it was, I doubt I would have even thought twice about it, but instead, I spent my time thinking about how bad this sheep’s breath must have smelled when it was alive. Ew.
Review: Sheep Eyeball
Imagine biting into an eyeball. What do you think it would be like? I had envisioned it feeling something like biting a grape… but I was wrong. If only things had been that simple. I sawed off a piece of that eyeball, and when I bite into it, my tongue was wading through a disgusting, sloppy jumble of anatomy and textures. Honestly, it might not have been THAT terrible if I hadn't known what I was eating... but unfortunately I had the burden of knowledge.
Honestly, the worst part about it was the skin.
Touching these faces felt like touching the skin of a dead human.
Reach up and touch your own cheek. It felt exactly like that, but warm, moist, and dead. I don't think I've ever felt anything creepier.
And that's it folks! However, I must confess that I didn't get around to try everything that I had intended to. There were a few other outrageous Icelandic foods were on my list, but once I actually arrived in Reykjavík I founded out that these dishes are mostly seasonal. Outside of a select few winter months, the following foods are apparently unavailable.
Foods I Missed Out On...
- Hvalspik (a.k.a. Whale Blubber)
- Lundi (a.k.a. Puffin)
- Súrir Hrútspungar (a.k.a. Sour Ram's Testicles)
So that was a bummer in some ways. But in a lot of other ways I sort of dodged a bullet! Now that I've actually seen Puffins in person I don't know if I could bring myself to eat an animal so cute... well, actually I probably could. Also, I'm sure that those sour ram testicles would have been disgusting.
So did you like this article? If so you might enjoy reading about some of the other disgusting things I've eaten in other parts of my travels.
- Peter Eats 3rd Trimester Duck Abortion (Vietnam)
- Peter Tries Thai Food: Larva, Roaches, & Frogs (Thailand)
- Peter Eats A Still-Beating Snake Heart (Vietnam)
We're almost done in Iceland. Just one more article is left before we move on to new horizons. Stay tuned! But in the mean time, it's time for some music...