29 May 2015

Boiled sheep head (svid) or rotten shark (hákarl)? Weird and wacky Icelandic food

I have always been an adventurous eater. From deep fried tarantulas in Cambodia, to silk worm skewers in China, to dangerous puffer fish (fugu) in Japan, I love trying them all. When I was trying to decide where to go to see the northern lights, I saw an article about weird and wacky food in Iceland. It sealed the deal for me.

Svid (Boiled sheep head)

I didn't waste any time - my first meal in Iceland was svid (boiled sheep head). After flying in from London, I caught the Flybus to BSI, the main bus station. There, in a diner called Fljótt og Gott inside the bus station, is the only place in Reykjavik that this delicacy is served. The sheep head is singed to remove the fur, cut in half to remove the brain, then boiled and served whole. It actually wasn't bad, other than the feeling that the food I was eating was eye-balling me the whole time, the cheek and the tongue were the best parts. 

You may say it looks gross or cruel, but I truly believe in the nose to tail philosophy of eating. If an animal is killed, every part should be used.

Hákarl (Fermented or rotten shark)

I was very interested to try the food that Gordon Ramsay had spat out - Hákarl has a reputation as one of the most disgusting food in the world. Greenland shark is poisonous when fresh; the rotting process allows the toxin to leak out of the flesh, making it edible. It's cut into small cubes and served on toothpicks. First impression, I thought it tasted like a strong blue cheese, with a pungent ammonia smell attacking my nose like an "after-smell", followed by a slight numbing sensation in the palate. It was so unique that I went back for seconds just to get my head around the taste, but it definitely was not enjoyable enough for a third tasting. Hákarl is often served with brennivin (also known as "black death"), a local spirit made from fermented potato mash. I wonder what the combination will be like?

Lundi (Puffin)

Puffins are small cute birds with black and white feathers and brightly coloured beaks and feet. It almost seemed cruel to order it from the menu but one waiter reassured my friend, "oh no don't worry, we have plenty of them". Apparently over half of the world's puffin population calls Iceland home, about 10 million birds. I tried some smoked puffin breast with mustard sauce at 3Frakkar. It was rich and smooth, maybe a little fishy (because of the puffin's fishy diet?) - it reminded me of salmon, I decided I liked it.

Minke whale

What? You ate whale? Yes, I admit shamefully, I did. Call it curiosity, I tasted a small piece at Saegreifinn. Whilst it used to be a traditional food over the long and bitter Icelandic winters, most don't eat it regularly nowadays. It tasted like a cross between beef and pork. I won't do it again though. The brutal truth is that we curious tourists are inadvertently supporting the whaling industry where whales are still hunted in a barbaric manner and die slow agonising deaths. Nope, never again.

Fish - 5 different ways of eating

Being an island, fish is an important part of the Icelandic diet. I tried 5 different ways of preparation - dried, cured or smoked, fresh and marinated, hash fish stew, and deep-fried.

One of the best was hardfiskur, or dried fish eg haddock. Found everywhere from supermarkets to service stations, I discovered Icelanders eat it after dipping it in some butter. The butter really brings out the flavour and makes it so much better, and without realising it I had polished half the bag and 2 little single serve packets of butter. It kept good company with me on our road trip!

I found this yummy snack in a little truck stop in Vik, consisting of malt bread, fresh/marinated herring and egg. This went down very well with my meat soup (Icelandic lamb stew).

Malt bread with herring and egg

I spent quite a bit of time in the Kolaportid weekend market, a flea market with a small food market that is a foodie's paradise. I was like an excited little girl, pointing to this and that and asking about everything. The shop owners were kind enough to enlighten me and also let me taste test each food. I ended up buying some cured salmon (graflax) and dung smoked rainbow trout (tadreyktur regnbogasilungur) for lunch the next day. Graflax is salmon cured in a dill based marinade, salt and sugar - a definition of melt-in-the-mouth decadence. On the other hand, smoking with burning sheep dung adds flavour - it was delicious, and no it did not smell or taste like dung, so rest assured!

Left - graflax (cured salmon), right - dung smoked rainbow trout

Leftover fish is traditionally made into Plokkfiskur (hash fish stew), basically mashed fish mixed with potato and a white sauce topped with a generous amount of cheese. It may not look like much but it's rich, creamy and gooey goodness that fills you up on a cold wintry night, the ultimate Icelandic comfort food.

And lastly, I don't have a picture (or I was too hungry to stop to take a picture) but Icelandic Fish & Chips was hands down one of the best I've ever had. The locally sourced fresh fish is coated in a spelt and barley batter, making it lighter and crisper and much healthier. It is served with baked potato chips and "skyronnaise". And of course, the fish and chips are best washed down with a pint of organic Icelandic brew.

My Icelandic breakfast

One of the things I really miss now was my daily breakfast buffet at the hotel. I would put together dark rye bread, pate, smoked Icelandic lamb (hangikjót), Icelandic birch cheese, cucumber and tomato in an open sandwish, then add a bowl of fresh fruit dowsed generously with Skyr. Skyr is an Icelandic yoghurt/cheese deemed to be the next super food that is high in protein, low in fat and super yummy. It was simply divine and a great start to the day. But then I saw other tourists next to me having cornflakes or toast with jam? They just didn't know what they were missing...

And for desserts...

My last meal before I left Iceland at Cafe Loki was a Rye bread ice-cream and Skyr cheesecake. I'm not usually a bread person as I don't like the mouth-drying sensation or the yeasty taste, but rye bread ice-cream? It was creamy with a hint of bread flavour and few crumbly bits mixed in - not my absolute favourite ice-cream but made a satisfying final meal to remember Iceland by.

Rye bread ice-cream and Skyr cheesecake

And for next time - Ram's testicles (Hrútspungar)

I had wanted to find this but not knowing what it looks like or the Icelandic word for it at the time made this task rather difficult. Now I know it is pressed and preserved in a block. It is often served on Husband's day, perhaps to remind the husbands what will happen if they step out of line! So, Iceland, I will be back and I look forward to continuing my culinary adventure.