Weird and Wonderful: Icelandic Food & Culture

Icelanders have long had a connection with the land and the ocean for sourcing food.

Iceland, like most countries has a great array of places to eat at and covers a myriad of cuisines familiar to most people including burgers, pizza, seafood, curries and the world famous Icelandic hotdogs (so good that even past US presidents and celebrities from Metallica, Game of Thrones actors to Ben Stiller rate them).

But one of the most interesting aspects of Iceland is its extraordinary foods and dishes. If you are brave enough, be prepared to have things put in front of you that make the dining scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple Of Doom seem like Masterchef. You're there for the experience, so don't expect to be greeted with familiar comfort food from back home.

Whale Meat

First things first. Don't watch "Free Willy" on your plane ride over to Iceland. The country has a very active whaling industry, and some its residents don't take kindly to those with opposing beliefs on the practice. If you don't care to keep your thoughts private, be prepared to openly argue your stance to Icelandic people. Conversely, if you don't care about killing whales, you can easily find some whale meat, including the Minke kind, to sample on restaurant menus. In saying that, many Icelanders are also converting from whale hunting to whale watching.

Puffin

Yes, some Icelanders consume this cute little black and white seabird. The meat is either smoked or broiled in chunks, accompanied with a blueberry sauce. However, puffin is considered a delicacy today due to the decline in population numbers.

From the land and sea

In addition to whale and puffin, Icelandic people also like to eat fish and sheep. Some of the local dishes include:

  • Harðfiskur, dried fish pieces served as a snack with butter, texture like jerky
  • Slátur, sausage made from a sheep's offal, similar to haggis
  • Svið, singed sheep's head
  • Blóðmör, which has sheep's blood
  • Hákarl, putrefied cubes of shark. Usually chased down by Brennivin - Icelandic Schnapps

It gets even more interesting with hrútspungar, which are pickled ram's testicles, sviðasulta, cheese made from a sheep's head, and lundabaggi, which is sheep's fat. You may find some of these dishes during the Þorramatur festival in the winter. During another holiday, the Christmas time Þorláksmessa, you may get to sample cured skate. Be warned that the smell of the fish can permeate clothing quite easily. 

Iceland's fertile volcanic soils provide lush pastures, berries and mosses for farmers to graze their sheep on. They were sustainably farming before organic became cool.

Brennivin

Known by the locals as "The Black Death", this schnapps like liquor has a base similar to vodka and it is flavoured with caraway, other spices and herbs. Brennivin is the traditional drink for Þorablot - Mid Winter Festival and is taken in shot qualities. It is also the chosen tipple to chase after downing a chunk of harkarl.

Culture and etiquette in Iceland

An interesting ancient cultural belief you'll encounter involves the huldufólk, or hidden people, of Iceland. These figures are said to resemble elves, and some Icelandic people swear they've seem them in the flesh. It's never nice to laugh at this cherished belief. You can learn more about the hidden folk at a museum solely focused on their history in Reykjavík.

Some other cultural things to know about for your trip to Iceland: tipping is thought of as rude; punctuality is not important, whether it's at meetings or parties; and Icelandic people say the "f" word a lot. Overall, while people from Iceland are quite pleasant, they are also opinionated and do not fear expressing themselves strongly to anyone. They may ask travellers, in widely-spoken English, what they think of Iceland. Answer as you wish, but know that a negative response will be taken in a bad way. The global financial crisis is still very much a painful subject in Iceland due to the country's 2008 collapse, so it will be a point of contention in conversation.



On that note, the GFC has dropped some of the costs of visiting Iceland, but alcohol and food can still be expensive, depending on what you buy. Beer or wine can cost between 600 and 800 kronur, while pizza is about 2,500 kronur. Bónus or Krónan shops have cheaper food, if you want to stay on your budget. Grocery stores also sell some low-alcohol beer -- you can find other things in liquor stores called Vinbuð. Iceland imposes a 24.5-percent value added tax, which is already included in prices. Travellers can get reimbursed for some of those fees on certain purchases at the airport. Cash is not necessary when buying things in Iceland, as most places accept credit cards.

2 Comments

  • John said

    I was in Iceland, when I went there on a ship. They had hot dogs made out of whale blubber, didn't taste too bad.

  • Andri Kristinsson said

    Here's also a good article with an overview of a few great icelandic delicacies to try: http://www.travelade.com/stories/ultimate-guide-icelandic-delicacies-part-1/

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