Icelandic Food Travelogue – A Far North Food Journey
“I’ll have the whale sashimi” (and other things I never thought I’d say)
Coming back from a recent trip to Iceland I made a list of all the foods that I’d managed to scoff over the course of four days. It read a bit like a bush-tucker challenge from the last series of I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here. Looking back at it I’m left feeling quite queasy: Smoked raw puffin, cured raw horse fillet, cured raw lamb fillet, whale sashimi, rotten shark, grilled whale steak, grilled horse steak, cured reindeer . . .”
Aside from the moral problems I had with eating some of these creatures, there was another one – I was there as a guest of a local food writer who had called restaurants ahead to say we were coming and could we try some ‘traditional’ Icelandic food. This meant one of two outcomes. Either the food presentation comes with a flourish and a long introduction about tradition, cooking and curing methods. Then there is a small rant about puffin-overpopulation. Or a plate is furtively put in front of me encouraging me to try the food. I then must ‘guess’ what the mystery meat is (because veggies don’t really come into this equation).
It makes me think about the way we approach other countries’ food. How easy it is to dismiss strange things out of hand without even trying them or trying to understand the history that lies behind the eating of them. I feel it is my duty to at least try some of the stuff on offer. Even though I have to refuse the seal blubber (we’ve all got our tipping point) I jump in the deep end and come away from Iceland with the following impressions…
“Icelanders have been eating puffins for thousands of years”
Top Icelandic delicacy, rotten shark (hakari), doesn’t actually taste rotten. But don’t let that lull you into a false sense of security. It could possibly be one of the foulest things you’ll ever eat. It’s made from the Greenland shark which is poisonous when eaten raw because of the high level of uric acid in its flesh. However after a few months pressing and burying in sand then a few more months hanging up to dry it’s ‘safe’ to eat. And what does it taste like? Well imagine someone peed on a really, really strong Camembert then left it to ferment for a few weeks. Yes really. You’d get less of a hit of ammonia from necking a bottle of cleaning fluid (not that I’d recommend that either).
If you do decide to try the shark you’ll probably be given the traditional accompaniment – a shot of brennevin or ‘Black Death’. This lethal schnapps will help the shark on its way (and kill the flavour). Don’t refuse the drink – you’re gonna need it, but non-Vikings should probably stop after a couple.
Puffins are on the protected birds list in the UK. Puffins are not on the endangered list in Iceland. They are on many restaurant menus and are hunted (sky fished with nets on poles) regularly for their meat. Icelanders have been eating them for thousands of years and even have a whole meal built around the consumption of the bird, the ‘lundaveisla’ or puffin feast (bizarrely I also saw this translated as ‘puffin party’). After having my own little puffin party (raw smoked and pan-fried) I that I wouldn’t be championing the cause of puffin-eating over here anytime soon.
“They like to smoke fish, and they love to smoke meat”
Whale was a bit dodgier. I was served whale sashimi (absolutely raw wafer thin slices of minke whale with soy sauce, wasabi and ginger). This was a classic ‘can you guess what you’re eating’ moment – I couldn’t. The dark red meat was as soft as butter and tasted clean and fresh. The griddled whale steak was similar to texture and taste to cooked liver. The local chefs who serve it are adamant that it’s all about tradition. The official government line is that Iceland hunts only it’s allowable quota of whales for both scientific and commercial reasons. But I couldn’t get it out of my head that hunting down these magnificent creature for food was, well, just wrong – and I still think that.
Then there was all the smoking. Icelanders love to smoke. Not cigarettes, that’s as banned in public places as it is over here. They like to smoke fish, and they love to smoke meat. It’s from the days when curing and smoking were used to preserve produce. Maybe it was just the kind of places we were hanging out in but in 4 days we seemed to be served a smoked dish at every meal. And it’s not a gentle ‘kissed by woodsmoke’ kind of flavour. It’s a full on raw hit-of-the-ashtray smoke. By the last day my stomach was going into spasms at the thought of another mouthful.
“We try buckets of whole lobster tails cooked in garlic and wine”
So what was good? Well – lots actually. Icelandic lobsters (which are more like large langoustines than what we know as lobsters) are tender and sweet. We tried buckets of whole tails cooked in garlic and wine to be pulled apart by hand and served with breads and salad; a gorgeous creamy lobster soup; Icelandic lamb – the ultimate free-range animals who roam the landscape braving the changeable weather; line caught Icelandic cod landed on the same day we ate it that fell apart into translucent tender flakes. And, in Reykjavík, one of the most famous cheap eats is a hot-dog with a whole array of home-made relishes and sauces to go with it – even Bill Clinton had one when he last visited the country.
At the end of the day when you’re travelling in search of new foodie experiences it’s not all about the weird stuff, though the challenging menu items are often the first thing you’re offered in a new country. Next time I’m headed off somewhere unusual, I’ll do a bit more research beforehand and I won’t be scared to ask when faced with a plate of something I don’t recognise.
Other local delicacies and where to eat them (if you dare)
Natto – Japan
Fermented soya beans usually eaten with rice. Fermenting gives a strong ammoniac-like smell and a sticky, (some say slimy or mucus-like) texture which stretches into spider web strands when picked up with chopsticks.
Durian – Asia
Known as the “king of fruit” across Asia yet banned on buses, planes and trains because of its potency. Smells like rotten flesh but if you can get past the smell (and many people can’t) the fruit has a creamy, custardy flavour.
Tripe – Britain/Spain
One for the home team. Usually made from cow stomach and has a honeycomb texture. In Britain it’s either cooked slowly with onions, milk and parsley or boiled and served with vinegar, white pepper and salt. In Latin America, menudo, a kind of tripe stew, is a hangover cure favourite.
Thousand-year egg – China
Duck or chicken eggs are preserved in a coating of clay, ash, salt and lime and left for 3-6 months. After curing the yolk turns dark green and the white a brown jelly. Try for breakfast – or not.
Surstromming (fermented herring) – Sweden
Herrings are lightly salted, fermented in barrels for a couple of months then tinned and left for another 6 months to ferment a bit more. Tins are often opened under water or inside plastic bags for protection as pressure can build up inside the tin. It’s banned on many airlines. Descriptions of the aroma range from sulphuric to rancid – warning!