It’s not yet known, however, for its haute cuisine.
While an increase in international visitors means that’s likely to change soon, in the past it’s been down to the scarcity of arable land in this volcanic country on the edge of the Arctic.
But Icelanders have always been resourceful, and while some of their heritage foods might be quite exotic for a visitor, for locals they provide a direct link to the past.
Here are 10 of the most unusual.
Hakarl– Kæstur hákarl (“treated shark”) is the one infamous Icelandic dish most tourists are made to try at least once. Hákarl, in short, is Greenland shark — or other sleeper shark which has been prepared by a fermentation process (buried underground for 6-12 weeks, actually) and then hung to dry for four to five months.
Puffin– Icelanders also, according to legend, sometimes eat the friendly seabird puffin. Visitors can actually order them in many tourist restaurants in Reykjavík, usually smoked to taste almost like pastrami, or broiled in lumps resembling liver. But do Icelanders really eat cute birds with colorful beaks?. Says Arngrímur: “I’ve never tasted puffin, but I can tell you that until the age of 15 or so I thought that puffin was explicitly a British bird.
Skyr – Is a dairy product, closely resembling full-fat Greek yogurt but with a much milder flavor. It’s been a part of Icelandic cuisine for more than a thousand years, and is made of pasteurized skimmed milk and a bacteria culture only found in Iceland. It’s traditionally served with milk and a topping of sugar, often for breakfast, and is usually an essential dish of all Icelandic childhoods.
– The first seafood on our list: Harðfiskur is basically fish jerky made from wind-dried fish (often cod, haddock or seawolf). It can be found in all supermarkets in Iceland. Harðfiskur, which Icelanders usually eat slathered with butter, often comes in colorful packaging illustrated with comic figures to attract young children. It’s no surprise Icelanders get hooked on fish at a young age.
– This is the one dish that’ll appeal to most visitors. Fish stew, or plokkfiskur, consists of boiled fresh cod or haddock filets, mashed together with potatoes and a roux-based white sauce. It’s often served with Icelandic rye bread and butter. This is proper family and comfort food, and most local families will have their own version. In the past, plokkfiskur was a means to preserve leftovers, though today most families buy fresh fish to make the stew.
Svið – Or smoked sheep’s head, is another traditional dish and also part of the midwinter Þorrablót celebrations. This one sees a sheep’s head cut in half, singed to remove the fur, boiled with the brain removed, and served with scoops of mashed potato and turnip. Svið is another throwback to leaner times when no part of the animal was allowed to go to waste.
Can’t resist trying a plate of svið with all the trimmings? The Fljótt og Gott restaurant in Reykjavík’s main bus terminal will oblige.
sviðasulta – (head cheese), made from bits of svið pressed into gelatinous loaves pickled in whey. While not known for its pleasant smell, some Icelanders still like to eat it. Says Vídalín: “Regular people don’t celebrate Þorrablót so much, it’s more of a workplace thing, and few people actually like the food. I like it but my family doesn’t, so I can’t really buy it for myself because they claim they can smell it a mile away.” Sheep’s head jelly can be tried as part of a plate of traditional Icelandic food at Cafe Loki, opposite the impressive Hallgrímskirkja cathedral in Reykjavík.