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Anyone for dolphin? The delights of Icelandic cuisine

Would the adventurous Road Junky be tempted by any of the following Icelandic treats…?

Despite volcanic cataclysms and the well-documented collapse of the country’s private banking sector, Iceland still enjoys exceptional standards of living, equality, cultural sophistication, education, welfare, egalitarianism, gender rights, and a hundred other things that make it a manifestation of Social Democratic Utopia. However, one thing it is surprisingly hard to find among the countless artwank bars and restaurants which line Laugavegur in downtown Reykjavík is a palatable Icelandic meal, with the standard contents of Þorramatur, the traditional national buffet, containing a selection of the least appetising dishes to be found anywhere on Earth.

Kæstur hákarl

(Putrefied shark) Icelandic cuisine’s pièce de résistance, the Greenland, or basking, shark is so literally inedible that it must first rot away underground for several weeks before consumption. Highly poisonous when fresh due to high acidity and neurotoxin levels, the beheaded shark is left to slowly decompose in a shallow grave made of sand for months until its fluids have been absorbed by the ground. The carcass is then carved into strips and left to cure in the open air for around half a year, by which time it has developed a stench of ammonia stronger than industrial bleach, mixed with the aroma of an animal that has been dead and exposed to the elements for six months. It is nearly impossible to eat without invoking the gag reflex and as a diuretic with a taste somewhere in the middle of a Venn Diagram comprised if fungus, rotten fish and toilet cleaner, hákarl is the single most hideous snack I have ever eaten anywhere in the world. Except Wendy’s.


(Sheep’s head cheese) Svið, a whole sheep’s head is dipped in gasoline, then set on fire on to remove (or at least singe) most of the hair. It is then boiled and de-brained and can be eaten “fresh” at this stage – sawn in half with the eyes left in, or it can be cooked and then pressed and pickled further into Sviðasulta, a jelly with the consistency of chilled eyeball that doesn’t taste much better, despite the addition of vinegar and some spices and the removal of the ears and eyes.

Súrsaðir hrútspungar

(Sour testicle cake) Carb-heavy diet mean you’re piling on the pounds and need more protein in your diet? This is the dish for you. A ram is castrated and its testes are pressed together between blocks like some grotesque punishment in a Joe Pesci film. Once pancake flat, the sheep’s balls are boiled and then cured in lactic acid and fermented whey, with added gelatine. The taste isn’t so much as important as the texture – imagine a cross between a balloon filled with cold, soggy spaghetti rolled out by a wine bottle and a chilled bathroom sponge and you are almost there…

Blóðmör slátur

(Blood haggis) Many vegetarians wince at thought of British culinary specialities black pudding and haggis, but the Icelanders go one better by combining them both in one hearty dish. And in a sheep’s diaphragm. Blood is drained from a lamb and kneaded into rye, oats, suet, and sometimes liver. It is all then tied up in innards and boiled until it looks like bagged red wine and blackberry sorbet. Older Icelanders like this idea of a sweeter version and mix in raisins with the blood before covering the internal organs in sugar.


(Whale) Since the lifting of a 20-year long moratorium in 2006, Iceland’s restaurants have been causing “distress” to hundreds of Lonely Planet readers, who have written of their “shock” of finding whale meat on the menus of restaurants in a traditional whaling nation. Looking and tasting like overly succulent deep purple-coloured prime grade beef, minke whale steaks are normally found on the meat sections of menus and cooked blue rare offer a delicate texture combined with juiciness their bovine counterparts can never dream of matching. Even better is whale nigiri, where the raw meat is served on a bed of rice which looks for all the world like the frozen tears of a Greenpeace activist. As whale is half the price of cow (and another Icelandic favourite – horse), minke is set to make a comeback with a whole new generation of post-Icesave Icelanders.


(Dolphin) If eating whale is offensive to many, eating dolphin is another level entirely, let alone eating it as raw Carpaccio. Periodically available at Reykjavík harbour front restaurant Tveir Fiskar, dolphin is tender, light in texture, and melts in the mouth. Dolphin meat is near black in colour, just to add some more dark symbolism, and it is highly likely to rank as the guiltiest culinary pleasure available anywhere in the world. Just try and stop yourself making Flipper noises afterwards…


(Seal flippers) Reykjavík is famous for clubbing, so what more appropriate way to cap off a Rúntur than some sour seal flippers. The flippers are removed from the rich Russians’ coat-in-waiting then pickled in soured milk and salt. They are then served raw and have a texture somewhere between slimed calamari rings and raincoat.


(Puffin) If it’s cute, the Icelanders will eat it, and their favourite bird is the puffin. Hunters scale the country’s ragged coastal cliffs to snatch away chicks for swanky restaurants, where the meat is served up in a number of dishes ranging from raw meats to desserts. Puffin has a texture and taste not unlike lumpy liver. It is also traditionally served grated over whale.


(Carraway schnapps) After all that, the thirsty traveller will need something to wash it all down with, and Iceland’s national drink follows its food in being both unique and near totally indigestible. Brennivín is potent caraway infused schnapps which is possibly the world’s only spirit impossible to mix into a cocktail. Sold with a plain black label during Iceland’s prohibition on beer (lifted only in 1989) with the misguided thought it would put the population off of purchasing it, Brennivín – also known as Black Death is best served as close to being frozen as possible, in the hope that the sensation of cold removes the sense of taste from the tongue.

Hot dogs

The new favourite food of the supercool Icelandic youth is processed frankfurter served in bleached white bread. Available everywhere across the country, the popularity of the hotdog is due to a combination of American military influence in the west of the island and the evicting of McDonald’s, and the fact that these snacks are practically the only food in the entire country that costs less than Iceland’s debt to UK and Dutch councils. By far the foulest tasting things on the island, Icelandic hot dogs can be made more palatable by mixing them with some of the rotten tomatoes scrapped off the walls of the national parliament.

Leon Addie