Icelandic Cuisine: Myths Exposed Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Icelandic Cuisine: Myths Exposed

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Hakarl hanging in a freezer, an Icelander stands nearby, dressed in warm clothes.

If you ever should find yourself at a Thorrablot1, you will probably see a lot of scary things on the table in front of you. Iceland is not famous for its delicacies, considering the main purpose of traditional food preparation was to preserve it. You could keep some of those dishes for months behind a radiator or under your bed and they would still be safe to eat (though this is not recommended).

If you are a foreigner, it's likely that drunken Icelanders will wave scary alien things at you and dare you to have a bite. If you are ever caught in this situation, here is a brief guide to the things they will be waving at you.

The Good News and the Bad News

In between the nasty-looking things, there are some dishes that are quite good. The unique culinary tidbits are due in a large part to their unique history.

10,000 Norse colonists settled in Iceland between 872 and 930AD, and for a very long time not many other ships or people ventured that far north. For the next few centuries, Icelanders received few imported goods, saw few other people, and passed the long winter nights writing and memorising long sagas chronicling the illustrious deeds of their Viking ancestors. Since nothing would grow on the island (until they discovered that they could build greenhouses on volcanoes for warmth), and nothing would live there (except Arctic foxes, sheep and Icelanders), they faced a thousand years of tough times and general famine. They had to subsist on whatever food they could find. As a result of these many centuries of privation, Icelanders have an obsession with preserving food in almost any way they can, and with eating almost anything that can be eaten - as well as one or two things that can't.

The website Iceland Travel Culture and Cuisine helpfully points out: 'A swig of Icelandic spirit Brennivin (caraway schnapps, locally known as Svartidauði - 'Black Death') or one of Iceland's many excellent vodkas always helps for a dose of courage.'

For anyone brave enough, recipes for a lot of the following dishes are available at Jo's Icelandic Recipes.

Scary Stuff

Svid ('Burned' Sheep-heads)

Stuff that most people associate with devil-worship. A sheep's head that's been burned to remove the wool, cut in two in order to remove the brain, boiled, and either eaten fresh or pressed into jelly (Svidasulta, 'sheep-head jam'). Despite the rather gruesome appearance, these taste quite good.

Even though they look quite serene and peaceful, some people can't stand the thought of eating a burned head. Many people eat only the lower jaw and the tongue to avoid 'eye contact.'

As long as anyone can remember, Icelandic children have then used the lower jawbones as playthings, usually pretending that it was livestock such as sheep. However, after the 1940s, the jawbone became a gun in children's games, and cowboys and Indians became quite popular. Today the jawbone has been replaced by videogames.

Hakarl (Rotted Shark)

This is without a doubt the most pungent and dubious thing at the table. Tastes like a combination of dodgy fish and strong French cheese with a hint of ammonia. If you are new to shark and are offered some, it is wise to take the darkest piece you see (the lighter the colour, the stronger the taste). The shark is prepared by burying it in sand for about six months. Served cold in little pieces, be careful not to eat too much as it can result in diarrhoea.

Note - do not attempt to prepare rotted shark at home! If you do it wrong or don't leave it in the ground for long enough, it's quite likely that you will die in agony from eating it, as it is full of neurotoxins and ammonia, which are filtered out using the process described above.

Slatur (Haggis)

Sounds like 'slaughter' for a reason. Sheep innards tied up in sheep's stomach and cooked. Similar to the Scottish haggis, only this comes in two varieties: The black (Blóðmör), which is made from blood, and the white (Lifrarpylsa), which is made from livers. Sometimes the slatur has been pickled with milk. Other times you'll find that some sadist has put raisins in it. You may spot an old person putting sugar on it before eating it, but this is not recommended.

Hrutspungar (Sour Ram's Testicles)

Ram's testicles, pickled in whey, put in gelatin, pressed either into a cake with garlic, as a jam, or as a kind of pâté that tastes sour and spongy, with a texture reminiscent of pressed cod roe. Guidebooks comment: 'Not bad if you don't think about it too much, especially in pâté form.' Or you could just take their word for it.

Lundabaggar (Sour Lamb)

This is a tough one to explain - it is made from secondary meats, like colons and other such stuff, rolled up, boiled, pickled (made sour in mysa, more commonly known as whey), sliced and held together with string. Very fatty, it may be a good idea to cut away the fat before eating, as sour fat usually tastes bad, but it won't leave you with much meat on your plate.

Selshreyfar (Sour Seal Flippers)

The flippers of those adorable animals, made sour in milk and salted. They taste sour, salty and slimy. These are rare, except at some family feasts where the participants have hunted the seals themselves. Quite revolting.

Hvalrengi (Sour Whale-fat)

Made sour with milk. Tastes like sour papier mâché, and probably not very healthy either. Fresh whale blubber is stringy and tough, but apparently pickling it makes it soft and more easily digestible.

Kæst skata (Rotted Stingray)

Made in the same way as the shark, but not as pungent and offensive to the nose as the rotted shark. It has a strong smell of ammonia about it. Sometimes it is mashed, then it is called skotustappa. Usually eaten as a main course, with potatoes.

According to some sources, Skata originates from the Western fjords in the eighteenth century when the brighter lights of society, on þorláksmessa (the day before Christmas), gave their humble hired help 'Skata' so as to assure that until the next þorláksmessa, anything would taste better (!) while they themselves stuffed themselves with hangikjöt (see below).

Just in case we've left you with the impression that only Icelanders ever ate rotted seafood, check out h2g2's articles on garum and lutefisk, respectively.

Not-so-scary Stuff

A reporter from Waitrose relates this experience on finding an excellent Icelandic restaurant:

I ask Runar about the country's notorious traditional dishes - shark and sheep's testicles - and he starts cursing. His English deserts him, and he utters a stream of foul-sounding profanities in Icelandic. Then he returns to English. 'We have invented refrigerators now' he says. 'Why we should have to eat such garbage nowadays is quite beyond me.'

Having said that, now to the more 'civilised' dishes:

Hangikjöt (Smoked Lamb)

Literally 'hung meat'. Salty, smoky, very good. This is also the traditional dish served at Christmas. This usually refers to smoked lamb or mutton, although smoked horsemeat is also called hangikjöt. Sometimes you'll find bits of string in the meat, those are tied around the meat to compress it and hold it together as it is being smoked; those are not eaten.

Sild (Marinated Herring)

Herring marinated in vinegar, mustard or tomato sauce with some onions, pepper and spices added. Usually eaten on rye bread (rugbraud).

Rugbraud (Rye Bread)

Tastes good, makes you fart - sometimes referred to as 'thunder-bread' by Icelanders. See also Danish Rye Bread.

Hardfiskur (Dried Fish)

Tastes good, very dry. Sometimes people put butter on it like bread. This item is quite popular in Iceland as a snack. It is wind-dried and you may spot racks of fish hanging to dry around Icelandic seaside towns. There are two varieties, haddock and cod.

Hvalllíki (Fake Whale Blubber)

This is made from fish and has a colour and texture reminiscent of the real thing, but an entirely different taste. It has become a þorri staple for many, and is by some preferred over the real thing. It seems to be more common in the Reykjavik area than in other parts of the country.

Saltkjot (Salted Meat)

Very good, salty. The meat is boiled and buried in salt for a long period of time, until it turns red. It is a good idea to eat this meat in moderation, as over-indulgence may result in swollen fingers and rapid heartbeat. Served hot, often with pea-soup.

Skyr (Icelandic Curds)

Looks and tastes a lot like yoghurt, but it's actually a type of cheese made from skimmed milk, usually eaten with cream and sugar.

Rutmus (Mashed Rutabagas and Potatoes)

For some it is an acquired taste, and is sometimes topped with lingonberry sauce. It is pronounced 'Rootmoose' or 'rut-Muss' depending on where the speaker is from.

Now, in fairness, Icelanders mostly serve food that most of the world would recognise, now that it's easier and cheaper to get imports, along with recipes and other food ideas that visitors bring with them. Take a virtual tour of the capital city, Reykjavik, and see what a beautiful, modern and fun place Iceland can be.

1A celebration; 'blot' was once the name for the 'mass' for the old gods.

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