Iceland is a country with a lengthy and well documented history beginning as far back as the late 800’s (yes, without a 1 in front). Within that time, the residents have come up with a selection of very creative dishes for the most adventurous of palates: rotten, poisonous shark, rams testicles, sheep head. Considering their isolation as an island off the west coast of Europe and their lack of fertile land (those pesky erupting volcanoes seem to get in the way of planting a diversity of agricultural crops), Iceland has become quite creative with their food and what is accessible to them.
Consequently, my self-claimed title as an avid adventure traveler also extends to what I will or won’t eat. I draw the line at very few things which include octopus, cats, dogs, dolphins, primates and any endangered species.
My motto while in Iceland when it comes to food? Do as the Icelanders do and try as many local dishes as possible.
Here are my opinions and a guide to some of the very best and worst Icelandic dishes. (If you’re looking for a great company to book a food and drink tour with, check out Iceland Travel.)
*Please consider sustainable choices if you choose to eat some of these foods. I opted not to dine on puffin or meat from endangered whales. I also ensured the Greenland shark I tasted was procured only as bycatch and not specifically hunted for its meat.
Top 4 Worst Foods
One of the only meals I ate in a restaurant to help curb the expense of the trip included a charcuterie-style board of Icelandic cuisine. This way I was able to sample many of these items without overspending on my budget or wasting what I didn’t enjoy.
1. Fermented Ram’s Testicles
I honestly believed fermented ram’s testicles wouldn’t be so bad. I was comparing them in my head to prairie oysters (bull testicles in Canada) which remind me of dry ribs in a way. Well, I was completely wrong. I’m not sure what bothered my more – the pickled taste or the fermented taste. It was incredibly difficult to swallow and I was thankful for my beer to chase it down.
2. Blood Sausage
Similar to black pudding in Great Britain, I didn’t enjoy my sampling of blood sausage which is a sausage filled with blood and filler until it is thick enough to congeal when cooled.
3. Liver Sausage
Many might not mind liver sausage, but after the ram’s testicles and blood sausage, I struggled with the soft and mushy texture of the meat. Maybe I’ll try it on its own next time.
My first taste of hákarl as seen in my video wasn’t as representative as I thought. My second sampling of it had a much stronger ammonia flavour that shot right into my sinuses and burned almost like a hot spice but with the stench and flavour of urea. Hákarl isn’t an item I’ll be adding to my grocery list anytime soon.
Top 6 Best Foods
Dairy is my favourite food group so it’s no surprise I loved this greek-yogurt-style dairy product. I bought every flavour available in the supermarket and ate it for breakfast or as a snack. It’s also very healthy which made me feel better about the multiple tubs of it I went through while in Iceland.
Another breakfast favourite, particularly with butter, is this very dense rye-bread traditionally baked underground near a geothermal spring.
3. Sheep’s Head and Tongue
I tend to like the heart, neck and gizzard when I eat chicken or turkey and sheep’s head (specifically the jaw and tongue) reminded me of that. The meat was juicy and flavourful, as long as you can ignore the teeth and eyes staring back at you on your plate.
Another snack I picked up in the supermarket is this beef-jerky-style dried fish. Usually made of cod or haddock, it’s eaten with a slathering of butter, something I fully support. The only downside is its very strong fishy smell.
5. Minke Whale
I’m almost embarrassed to admit how tasty minke whale was considering many environmental groups are against whaling. However, the species isn’t endangered so I felt it was okay to try a piece. It was served on top of creamy mashed potatoes, handmade onion rings and greens in a tasty sauce. It was so tender and juicy I almost enjoyed it more than a well-cut piece of beef back in Canada.
No trip to Iceland is complete without a pylsa – or hotdog – made mostly of lamb picked up at a convenience store or gas station and loaded up with all the fixings. My favourite part was the crispy, fried onions sprinkled on top.
Other foods the Icelandic eat but I was unable to try: reindeer, horse, lamb stew and puffin.
*Some of the links included in this article are affiliate links. This is one way I support myself to keep me on the road travelling.
4 thoughts on “Unusual Icelandic Cuisine: The Best and Worst”
We are happy to see McDonald’s leave! 🙂 But that is not the only food that will disappear. Iceland’s only whaler, Kristján Loftsson will not be whaling this summer and by the looks of it, it might be the end of an era! http://www.rent.is/blog/only-whale-watching-in-iceland-no-whale-hunting/
Did you try a Big Mac in Iceland?
Unfortunately McDonald’s left in 2009, so I settled for a photo with the last remaining (and very dehydrated) cheeseburger and fries! (I figured that counts….)