“The horror. The fermented horror.”
~Tourists looking at a list of Icelandic dishes
Iceland is a country so far north that you basically never see the sunlight during their winters, which are only made somewhat tolerable, temperature wise, because when God made that island as somewhere no one would try to live he forgot about the volcanoes he accidentally put there. When “well, the cold’s not so bad, thanks to the volcanoes” is something an entire nation can say, it’s probably not surprising that their culinary culture embraces “bad, depressing foods” that existed solely to make sure 300,000 or so crazy Norse people could muster up just enough energy not to starve or freeze.
Now, Iceland is a perfectly lovely country, and apparently is very beautiful to visit in the summer. That being said, here’s what Icelandic people have to say about Icelandic winters. Anyway, rich culture notwithstanding, we took a look at the kind of meals you can expect from traditional Icelandic cooking and discovered, well, that it’s going to be our next installment in our ongoing series, The World’s Saddest Cuisines. So let’s dive in.
The World’s Saddest Cuisines: Iceland
Iceland was settled in the 9th century by the 9th century version of those crazy white people who pay thousands of dollars to climb Mount Everest. The name itself is basically an entire Nordic island shouting, “Come at me, bro” to humanity. “So, you say it’s called Iceland, and it’s way the fuck up north? Sign me the fuck up!” Despite, or probably because of, growing up in a country that tries to drive you mad with lack of sleep during the summer, and drive you to depression with lack of sun during the winter, Iceland is a very successful nation, with the 2015 IMF listing them as the 9th highest Per Capita GDP in the world. Iceland now entices tourists to come in and take in their progressive music scene, walk their pristine nature hikes, or relax in one of their natural geothermal spa. They even likely have high-end and fancy restaurants for you to eat something that’ll truly impress you. But do not be deceived by where Trip Advisor tells you to go. The history of Icelandic food, and many of their traditional dishes, comes from a place of empty sadness.
When we as a species first started making food for established societies, especially ones where food might be harder to come by, we found inventive ways for the food to stay edible as long as possible. These preservation processes were essential for the survival of our species, but we also found a way to use them to at least make our incredibly old food not taste horrible. Salt, for example, is something that is good, and is good at preserving food. That’s why salted dishes have an important place in many culinary practices, to add taste and longevity to your food. But apparently Iceland doesn’t have a lot of salt, and they felt it was too much of a pain in the ass to make salt by boiling down the water from the ocean, so they improvised. Which means that they would often use fermentation, specifically fermented whey, to preserve their food instead of using salt. That’s just a bit of a preview of what’s going to be in store for you here.
Listen, any cooking tradition that centers around preservation, outside of the existence of beef jerky, is going to be at least a little depressing. America in the 1950s basically developed the “tradition” of TV dinners using preservation methods, and “TV Dinner” is actually one of the official definitions of loneliness in the dictionary. So knowing that Iceland’s food comes from a place of, “We needed to keep our food edible as long as possible since we live in a country that was possibly created as a way to punish our ancestors, oh and also salt is too fine of a luxury for us to afford” you have an idea of what to expect.
Fjallagrasamjólk (Iceland Moss Soup)
Listen, Iceland is doing just fine now. Well, sure, they basically murdered their economy back in 2008 with their mindset of, “Hey, all 300,000 of us living here can afford to build a mansion through bank loans here, this seems sustainable!” But, you know, they’re not starving over there or anything. Look at Bjork! Iceland’s doing just fine. But that clearly wasn’t always the case, considering that they have traditional dishes that need to use something called Iceland moss that essentially means they are eating moss that you can find in Iceland.
Now, first of all, the name Iceland Moss is a misnomer, because it’s technically a lichen. But considering that lichen is half fungus, half algae, that doesn’t really make it much better. Hell, most lichens in Europe were contaminated by fallout from Chernobyl so as to not be fit for consumption, but Iceland is so far in the middle of desolate nowhere that their weird, bitter lichen helped the island dodge that bullet. There is no mincing words here, the first time Iceland moss was consumed by a person it was because he or she was so desperate for food that they went down on their knees and started licking a fucking rock. That might not be in the literature anywhere but we can guarantee that’s how that shit went down.
Anyway, so Iceland found a bitter, colorless lichen that grows on rocks that currently is relatively radiation-free and thought, let’s mix some milk in there and make a fucking soup. Iceland is pretty much the only country that thought to try to use this for actual food. They also use the moss to make a cough syrup that is extremely bitter despite being just, doused in sugar. So basically this soup is the equivalent of making a soup out of codeine and milk, which actually probably is something that at least someone in the Meth belt has tried. But still. Cough syrup moss as a soup is the most depressing way to start a meal that doesn’t include a pre-dinner wake for the family puppy.
Gellur (Cod tongues)
Don’t worry about the name, folks! Gellur is not actually the tongues from cod! No, it’s just the fleshy, triangular muscle you can find behind and under the tongue, by its throat! What’s that? It didn’t even occur to you that cod have tongues? That’s…well that’s a good point. And what else did you say? Oh, right, yeah that still sounds pretty fucking terrifying. And desperate. When you have to find a way to use the tongue-area of a fish to find suitable sustenance, that’s pretty depressing. It’s even worse when you realize the amount of effort it takes to get any edible meat out of these fuckers. First, you have to soak them overnight in cold water, because the meat’s surrounded by a pretty thick membrane that needs to break down. If you’re picturing a bucket full of cod tongues soaking in a bucket in your kitchen overnight, and are gagging, well we have some bad news for you because the rest of this article is going to be a fucking chore. Then, you want to scrape off the slime before you boil it for 10 to 15 minutes. Yes, that’s right, slime.
The cod tongues are typically then served with plain boiled potatoes, rye bread and butter, and the heart-wrenching sobs your father makes as he explains that they no longer need him working at the fish monger, and that things are going to get a bit lean this winter.
Lysi (Cod Liver Oil)
Lysi is a cod liver oil taken as a supplement in Iceland, which have been described as tasting like “fish shits.” It’s taken as a dietary supplement in Iceland, because considering the lean picking they have to choose from animal-wise, apparently they need it. There’s nothing wrong with taking a supplement, or even taking fish oil as a supplement. But, the thing is, this isn’t coming in a capsule. If the very concept of “Children’s Cod Liver Oil” isn’t enough to make you want to hug your kids and tell them you’ll never leave them, the fact that it’s a liquid oil that you are supposed to spoon feed to your children twice a day should at least make you break out into a heartbreaking rendition of “Cat’s in the Cradle.”
Slátur (Blood Pudding)
To quote this handy guide to Iceland, whose main point is “STAY AWAY FROM OUR FOOD”, “Slátur literally means ‘slaughter.’ It’s a dish made out of sheep’s innards, blood and fat. This is a dish that’s very regularly served with the sheep’s head. It’s Iceland’s answer to black or white pudding – or the Scottish haggis. Blood pudding is also served at many gatherings along with sweet rice pudding, which is a slightly odd combination.” JESUS CHRIST. WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU, ICELAND!? First of all, who is in charge of naming up there? You don’t call your food “slaughter.” That’s fucking insane. We don’t call hot dogs “squeal little piggies not even your surprising intelligence will save you now” because we know a little something about how to handle delicious foods that come from unsavory sources. It’s called fucking marketing, Iceland, look it up.
Iceland, we did not need your “daring” take on haggis, because no one asked you for that. We get it, sheep are hard to come by out there, and you wanted to find a way to use all of that fucker, blood and all. But also, “blood, fat and innards, mixed together and served with the head” is less a well-rounded meal, and more like a scene from an Eli Roth horror film.
Oh, and you’re curious about the whole sheep’s head thing? Good point. We might as well address this too…
Svið (Sheep’s Head)
Oh for fuck’s sake. Look at that fucker. That’s some goddamn nightmare fuel right there. Svið is a traditional dish that consists of, well, there’s not much to say more than “a fucking sheep head.” The head is normally cut in half (we’re so sorry we’re telling you all this), singed to remove the fur (knowledge is pain, we know) and boiled with the brain removed (here’s a box of kittens to bring joy back in your life, we’re so sorry). Sometimes it’s cured in lactic acid because we just fucking give up at this point. If the thought of eating a sheep’s head as your dinner makes you deeply sad, well it fucking should. Not surprisingly, it first came about when there was so little food that no part of the slaughtered animal could go to waste.
Here’s the thing. We’re not against eating heads. There’s some good meat on there! Have you ever had headcheese? It’s pretty good! That, however, is not the same as starring into the eyes of fucking Lamb Chop as you pick meat off its cheek to slowly expose more and more of its sinister death grin. Icelanders say that the eyes are the best part, though it’s unclear if they’ll tell you that before or after they point out that on a cosmic scale everything you accomplish in this life is meaningless. If you think that the somber act of eating a sheep’s head would probably lead to some pretty weird and kind of creepy superstitions surrounding the eating of this dish, well you’d be absolutely fucking right! Apparently, it’s considered taboo by some to eat the ears, since ears bear the mark of the animal’s owner, and you don’t want to be accused of being a sheep head stealer, which apparently is something people in Iceland have to worry about, can someone please call on Iceland and check in to see that they’re doing okay?
Another superstition behind the eating of svið has to do with the small bone underneath the tongue. Apparently, if you don’t break it, a child that cannot speak will remain silent forever. Jesus fucking Christ! We don’t care if that’s just some weird folk superstition, break the bone, break the motherfucking bone you monsters! God, who even thinks of that? “I’m eating a sheep’s head, you know, here’s a tiny bone in its mouth, I’m willing to bet dollars to donuts that if I leave this unbroken it’ll create a mute child.” Oh, that’s right, Iceland. Iceland is the one who thinks of that. Holy fucking hell.
Man, Iceland has seen some shit.
Hvalspik (cured whale blubber)
Iceland is one of the few countries that eat whales, which is a thing that pisses a lot of people off, especially when they take some of the meat and make a beer with it. So for some of you, the thought of majestic sea creatures being ruthlessly harvested to feed a nation of 300,000 might make you a bit sad. It doesn’t matter so much that the whales they hunt are not endangered, and that there are strict limits in place, it’ll just bum you out. That’s fair. That’s the purpose of this article, food that’s just, sad. But the rest of you who, like us, are cackling, “hahaha, whatever, fuck whales, I saw that one Ron Howard movie with Thor!” you’ll see the wind taken right out of your sails when you hear about Hvalspik, cured whale fat that’s often served in a þorramatur, or selection of cured meat and fish products. It’s not that eating a hunk of whale fat is depressing, though it is. It’s that when this dish was created, there were no commercial whaling fishing options for Iceland. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that they had the capacity to go out and systematically whale the region, so the likely first instance of this dish coming to play came from a hvalreki, the Icelandic word for a beached whale that is now a term used to mean “jackpot.”
That’s right. The Icelandic word for “I just got lucky, hell yeah!” is “there’s a giant sea monster dying on the beach, we can now cure its blubber and eat for months!” Hug a stranger, folks, it could brighten their day. What? No, we’re not crying, that’s just allergies. Just let it rest, okay?
Kæstur Hákarl (fermented shark)
Eating shark is actually not that depressing, if you think about it. It’s almost triumphant. “I have captured a predator of the sea, and now I will eat its tender flesh!” And shark meat, depending on the shark, is not bad on its own. Similar consistency to swordfish, according to our staffers that have tried it. But you know what they did to the shark they ate? Grilled it with seasoning. They did not cure it and leave it hanging for five months to allow it to develop a “particular rotten taste.” Enter Kæstur hákarl, stage left.
Now, this is not a case of Iceland deliberately screwing up shark meat because they’re essentially food hoarders, making sure that everything they eat is cured enough to survive longer than an MRE. Iceland has a pretty good reason why they ferment the meat first. That’s because the shark they use, the Greenland shark, is poisonous when fresh. Yes, they found a shark that has fucking poison meat and thought, “Wait a minute…we can fix this.” So in fermenting and curing the fish, it allows the shark to fully decay, removing toxins from its flesh and making it edible. It also makes it smell like cleaning products. We’ll just quote Wikipedia here to drive home how depressing it is to have this as your national dish. “Those new to it may gag involuntarily on the first attempt to eat it…[they] are sometimes advised to pinch their nose while taking the first bite.”
So come to Iceland, and enjoy our culinary traditions, like rotted poison shark meat once described by Anthony Bourdain as the single most disgusting thing he has ever eaten! If it’s winter it’ll be so dark that no one can see your tears!
In Iceland, it’s considered a delicacy to eat a puffin’s heart, raw. For reference sake, this is a puffin. They take their widdle hearts and cut them raw for you and Iceland is so starved for good food that this is considered something you save for a special occasion. Just…goddamn it.
Súrir hrútspungar (Sour Ram’s Testicles)
*tosses hands up in the air* *gives up*
What the actual fuck? We’ve had entries to this series where we’ve struggled to find four entries and just wanted a reason to say “Djibouti” a lot. But here, it seems like everything to eat on Iceland is laughably terrifying. And everything has layers of depressing horror. These are sad and scary at the same time. Does eating a sheep’s head feel pretty dour? Well let’s just toss in a superstition about deaf children. Cured shark meat sound horrendous? Don’t worry, they only cure it because it’s poison. What, you have a problem eating a ram’s balls? Don’t worry, the balls are pressed into blocks before being boiled and cured in lactic acid to give it a nice spongy texture and sour taste that reminds you that it’s three in the afternoon and pitch black outside.
So, wow. We didn’t expect it to be the case, but Iceland might be the saddest cuisine in the world. The saddest. Like, top spot. Anyway, don’t eat sour ram’s testicles, they sound bad. And if you must visit Iceland in winter, we guess, bring a sun lamp and a McDonald’s franchise with you if you want to maintain any sanity.