Iceland: A challenge even for the cuisine-bold

March 15, 2010

I am seriously pro-food. I like to think about food, read about food, gently prod food, ferment food, garnish food, smell food, buy food, seek food and experience new food.  I regale the difference between 6-month and 12-month Manchego, care whether asparagus is in season, and am honestly fond of (not just making a point of) eating sweetbreads (thymus and pancreas, usually, of calf), bone marrow, squid and fermented fish sauce. However, my upcoming trip to Iceland is making me gustatorily anxious.

Icelandic food specialties read more like grievous and fatal fraternity hazing rituals than anything that a human with extant taste buds and olfactory capability would submit to willingly. The regional recipes manage to get an F- on each of the rough trinity of food-is-yummy criteria, offending the user psychologically, aesthetically, and sensually.

Kæstur hákarl

At the top of the list is the somewhat infamous Kæstur hákarl. I’m going to jump ahead a bit here and give away the ending. Anthony Bourdain, chef extraordinaire, calls hákarl “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he has ever eaten. BBC Top Gear co-host James May challenged foul-mouthed TV chef Gordon Ramsay to a weird duel in which the winner would be the one who could, essentialy, not barf. Ramsay lost.

Say you were an Icelander wandering around the beach in front of your sod-house farm one day in the mist and cold, and you came upon the body of a Greenland shark that had washed up on the gravel. You try a hunk and pass around samples to your famished sled dogs. You spend a night of extreme intoxication–like being outrageously drunk without the pleasure–and wake up to find that your dogs have keeled over entirely.

This is because Greenland sharks are poisonous in two ways, both gross. Their flesh has a high concentration of trimethylamine oxide, which is the putrid stench that we most often associate with decaying fish. It’s also toxic, and is highly concentrated in this species of shark. The second thing that will make you feel quite unwell is the presence of uric acid. Sharks don’t have the benefit of a urinary tract, and, in effect, pee through their skin. Bon appetit!

Turns out you can rectify this whole poisonous problem if, in the process, you transform the shark into something that “[t]hose new to it will usually gag involuntarily on the first attempt to eat it.” This involves beheading, gutting, burying in gravel, using a weight to expel the shark “juices”, fermentation, then drying. As I understand it, it smells like window cleaner and death. It tastes like throwing up because that’s what most people do.

As if that weren’t enough

Here’s a list of other Icelandic treats, shamelessly yanked from the Wikipedia page on Þorramatur

  • Kæstur hákarl, putrefied Greenland shark
  • Súrsaðir hrútspungar, the testicles of rams pressed in blocks, boiled and cured in lactic acid.
  • Svið, singed and boiled sheep heads, sometimes cured in lactic acid
  • Sviðasulta, head cheese or brawn made from svið, sometimes cured in lactic acid
  • Lifrarpylsa (liver sausage), a pudding made from liver and suet of sheep kneaded with rye flour and oats
  • Blóðmör (blood-suet; also known as slátur, meaning slaughter), a type of blood pudding, which is made from lamb’s blood and suet, kneaded with rye flour and oats
  • Harðfiskur, wind-dried fish (often cod, haddock or seawolf), served with butter
  • Hangikjöt, (hung meat), smoked and boiled lamb or mutton, sometimes also eaten raw.
  • Lundabaggi, sheep’s loins wrapped in the meat from the sides, pressed and cured in lactic acid
  • Selshreifar, seal’s flippers cured in lactic acid

Mmmm, Lifrapylsa: liver sausage/pudding from sheep liver and suet. No, thanks

He says it best

A hilarious send-up on hákarl from a writer on named Michael M.:

So what does hakarl taste like then?  It tastes like crying.  It tastes like broken promises.  It tastes like the Lord God Almighty ripping the Bible out of your hands and saying, “Sorry, this doesn’t apply for you.  I think you want “Who Moved My Cheese?”  It tastes like the Predator wading into a Care Bears movie and opening fire.  It tastes like - bah.  That’s what it tastes like.  Bah.

The only – and I do mean only - upside about this food is that it was free.  I was wandering through a weekend market in Reykjavik and came across a stall serving fish.  The woman working there started talking to me in Icelandic (please see the full set of my Icelandic articles to figure out why), and the moment she realized I was not Icelandic, she smiled and offered me a little paper cup with a cube of hakarl in it.  At the time, I thought this was a warm gesture of welcome to her country.  As it turns out, she was thinking, “Well, you are foreign and now I shall poison you.”

I smiled the moment I put the cube on my tongue.  It was the exact sort of smile you get when you are having the worst day of your life and then find out that your house was crushed by an airplane carrying rubber chickens.  It is the smile you smile when everything is aligned against you and it is simply not your day.

Read the rest of the hilarious post


  • “Gordon Ramsay Vs. James May | Serious Eats.” Serious Eats: A Food Blog and Community. Web. 15 Mar. 2010. <>.
  • “Hákarl -.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 15 Mar. 2010. <>.
  • “What Are Sweetbreads?” WiseGEEK: Clear Answers for Common Questions. Web. 15 Mar. 2010. <>.


  1. autumn says:

    well. look at it this way. you’ll arrive in your current state of sveltitude and leave ready to conquer the runway. you’ll be perfectly waifish and can turn this into a wildly successful modeling career. there’s an upside to everything!

  2. Todd says:

    I think harðfiskur might not be that bad. The rúgbrauð, too. And though we’ve only been to continental Scandinavian countries, I do recommend akvavit — or brennivín, in your case — to cure whatever ails you, even if it was the preceding food items.

    To be fair, you won’t be there during þorri (thankfully?).

  3. Aileen says:

    There is nothing good about that list, except possibly “served with butter.”

  4. Jeff H. says:

    Do they have McDonalds in Iceland? If not, you may want to take some with you. I hear that McDonalds french fries hold up quite well for extended periods of time.

  5. Andy says:

    I have a friend who visited Iceland with his wife shortly after their economy collapsed and flights and hotel rooms were extremely cheap. He said they have delicious hotdogs there, for what that’s worth.

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