I’ve never been an adventurous eater. For example, the most daring I’ve ever gotten with seafood is tuna from a can, and even then I drowned it in mayonnaise (like a true American). So when I decided to go on a solo trip to Iceland, I made a concerted effort to include the local cuisine in my diet, because what is adventure for if not subsisting on pickled everything for two weeks?
Upon my arrival in Iceland, however, I discovered their food is not entirely picked (duh). In fact, Icelandic cuisine is in a league of its own, quite innovative and generally delicious, with each dish reflecting the nation’s extreme landscape and over a thousand years of cultural history.
Much of the food is locally sourced and seasonally available, but this is a matter of circumstance rather than an embrace of culinary trends. To an outsider such as myself, this makes for some peculiar menu items. Herewith, the most surprising —and most strange — foods I ate, if only so the world can know what Icelandic food is really like.
Svið: Sheep face
Cooking a face and putting it on a dinner plate is a great argument for vegetarianism. For the carnivores among us, eating meat is a lot easier when you’re not staring at the face of the animal itself, especially when said animal is everywhere you drive on your Icelandic vacation. Though the eating of svið reflects the Icelandic custom of eating every part of an animal in order to survive during treacherous winters, periods of famine, and such, it still makes for a pretty ghastly visual. Once I was able to get past the experience of looking my meal in its dead eye, I was surprised by how much I liked it, finding the boiled sheep face meat tastes salty and a bit metallic. Fortunately, the meat is soft so you don’t have to attack the skull with your fork and knife. The tender tongue and the eyes are a favorite among locals, and you can find them eating it year round at BSÍ, the bus terminal in Reykjavík.
Puffins are adorable. They also taste very good. I didn’t consider them a food until I saw Anthony Bourdain eat them on No Reservations, which of course I watched as part of my preparation for this trip. I was initially conflicted about eating puffin on account of the birds’ cuteness, but I figured if I could eat a sheep’s face, then I could stop forcing my American sentimentality on Icelandic culture and simply try what was offered to me. Iceland tightly regulates the hunting of puffin—there are only ten days a year during which one can hunt the birds legally—so despite its natural abundance, puffin is considered a specialty and hard to find outside restaurants. I ordered puffin at a nice restaurant in the Westfjords, where it was served as a beautifully plated appetizer. The meat is dark red and very rich, with a slight fishy taste. Overall, I thought it was quite delicious.
One of my ambitions for the trip was to ride one of Iceland’s tiny but sturdy horses. When I set this goal I was unaware that horses serve as both a tourist attraction and a menu item, but I will say I didn’t feel so guilty eating Icelandic horse after I got thrown from one. One local told me their horses are so well behaved because Icelanders eat the bad ones (though I suspect they eat the good ones, too). Regardless, horse meat is tough and chewy, and tastes a little sweeter than beef—but it’s not gamey as one might expect. I ate horse in the same fancy restaurant where I tried puffin, though I saw it on menus all over the country and it was readily available in supermarkets.
Okay, cod is neither weird nor unexpected. The key ingredient of fish ‘n chips can’t possibly be wack. But the story behind how Iceland brings cod to your table is pretty fascinating, which made eating the fish feel more meaningful than it might otherwise: For one thing, Iceland went to war with and defeated the United Kingdom’s Royal Navy over cod. Three times. Secondly, the cod served in Icelandic restaurants is fished out of the sea only hours prior. I had the great fortune of eating cod multiple times during my trip, both home-cooked and served at restaurants (and never in fish stick form). No matter what, it always tasted fresh and somewhat sweet, with the flakey meat falling away like butter. If Iceland is good at one thing, it’s fishing, and you can taste the difference in the cod you eat there.
As far as seafood goes, eating whale is quite a step up from canned tuna. Whales are an important part of Iceland’s history, having kept entire communities from starving during their long, unforgiving winters. Though I was adamant I would not partake in eating the sea’s gentle giants, table etiquette got the better of me when I was served minke whale by a family that was hosting me. I tasted only a single bite. I have to admit, I found the meat to be quite delicious, with a savory flavor not unlike a beef rib eye. I took a small bit of solace in knowing the Icelandic government is very serious about enforcing whale-hunting quotas and never allows the hunting of anything endangered. That said, I didn’t feel good about having this animal on my plate and I would not eat whale meat again. It’s not worth the bitter aftertaste of guilt.
Pylsur: Gas station hot dogs
In the United States, no one would ever recommend that a person go out of their way to eat gas station hot dogs (unless that person truly wanted a stomachache). In Iceland, the exact opposite is true: almost everyone I met asked if I had tried gas station hot dogs yet. And once I did, I could understand the local enthusiasm: their hot dogs are tasty, have great texture—smooth but with a satisfying thickness—and their fixings make our Fourth of July celebrations look like a joke. Every gas station is ready to pile on fried onions, potato salad, chili ketchup, and even bacon to enhance your pylsur experience. Most importantly, when you’re driving through Iceland’s barren highways for hours on end, you can always depend on the gas stations to keep you well fed.
Ali Wunderman is a part-time writer and traveler, and a full-time dog lover. Follow her on Twitter at @aliwunderman for stories on food, life, and San Francisco.
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