Hangikjöt (Smoked Lamb)
Hangikjöt is smoked Icelandic lambs. It is reputed to be especially good because of how the sheep are farmed, which is quite old fashioned: they are free to roam around the wilderness of the unspoiled and rather barren highlands all summer long without any supervision at all. The sheep graze not only on grass, but also on plants and herbs which contributes to their rich and complex flavour. In this way, the meat has been marinated the entire life of the animal.
After the slaughter, the farmer smokes the lamb traditionally fueling the fire with birch or dried sheep dung – each of which adds its own distinctive flavour. Smoked lamb is usually served up with potatoes, béchamel sauce, red beets and green peas.
The famous not-actually-a-yoghurt-but-nobody-cares product, skyr, is technically a type of soft cheese, made from gelatinous milk curds. As appetizing as that sounds, mixed with milk and served with sugar or Icelandic blueberries, it’s actually quite wonderful, with a rich, yoghurt-like texture and slightly sour taste.
The real magic, however, is in its nutritional value. This superfood is incredibly high in protein and unbelievably low in everything else, a typical batch sporting something like 12% protein, 3% carbohydrate and 0,5% fat, and also rich in calcium and various vitamins.
Icelandic fish (All the fish)
In addition to the wide variety unbelievably fresh fish available, there are two types of interesting traditional Icelandic fish worth noting:
- Saltfiskur (Bacalao): Saltfiskur, literally salt-fish, has been dried and salted. It has a history in scandinavia of more than 500 years, and used to be a major export before refrigeration was a thing. Recently however, it has experienced a revival in some Icelandic restaurants.
- Harðfiskur (Stockfish): The simplest way to explain harðfiskur is that it is like beef jerky. Only fish. So fish jerky. It is dried out in the cold air, where the cold air bacteria ferment it in a process similar to the fermenting of cheese. So fish-cheese jerky. And it’s awesome. You eat it with butter.
Kjötsúpa (Meat soup)
Another traditional lamb dish, it was originally a way of preparing tougher pieces of meat but these days is cooked with as high quality meat as any other dish. The meat is cut into small pieces and boiled with bones and all, with rice, potatoes, turnips, carrots, onions and herbs. It is boiled for several hours before serving, though most Icelanders agree that it gets even better if you let it sit for a day and then re-heat it.
“Ein með öllu” – the iconic Icelandic hot dog
One of the most typically Icelandic foods is the pylsa hot dog. They contain lamb which gives them an unusual flavour, but the magic is in the sauces. A real Icelandic hot dog is served með öllu, with everything on it, which means ketchup, a sweet brown mustard, raw onions, fried onions, and remoulade (a sauce made with mayonnaise and relish).
Svið (Singed and boiled Sheep Head)
Svið literally means “singed”, from how the sheep head is singed to remove the hair. It is then brained, boiled and served with mashed turnips, potatoes and rhubarb jelly. Then you eat its face. And eyeballs. Gross as it sounds (and looks), svið is not actually bad food, and you absolutely must try it when you’re here, if only to say that you did it.
Hrútspungar (Rams testicles)
Because of the historical poverty of the Icelanders, it was essential that nothing, absolutely nothing, went to waste. Hrútspungur is ram’s testicles. In order to preserve this delicacy, it is pressed into blocks and pickled to perfection. Mmmmmm.
Different from the other entries on the list, horse is on the “worst” side more for the moral reprehension most people have towards it. It is actually quite delicious when you try it. Which, considering the news recently, you probably already have, to be fair.
Hákarl is cured shark. Have you ever heard of the delicious shark-fin soup? Yeah this is nothing like that. Hákarl has a strong taste of ammonia (you know, thecleaning product), and is reminiscent of a very, very ripe cheese.
Because there is so much urea (you know, like the stuff in urine) in the meat, fresh shark would be highly poisonous, but after curing it is only slightly poisonous. Curing is done by burying it under the ground for 6-12 weeks, then hanging it to dry and ferment for four to five months. You absolutely must try it though, because all your friends will ask about it when you get back home, and because it’s an excellent excuse to drink Brennivín, the icelandic schnapps lovingly (and fittingly) nicknamed Black Death.
Skate is flat fish that has a long tail. The terrible thing about skata is the smell. It is in some ways similar to shark, only skata is boiled, and traditionally served at a party on the day before christmas eve. The smell is overpowering and causes neighborly disputes, it gets in your fancy clothes you were planning to wear over christmas and it never comes out. However, if you brave the smell, Skata has an acquired taste, and if you get used to it, you will really love it.