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Indelicate Delicacies

Posted on 12/15/2015 12:32:00 PM in Travel Trivia

In which country can you dine upon such delicacies as fermented shark, singed sheep’s head, and horse meat?

Question: In which country can you dine upon such delicacies as fermented shark, singed sheep’s head, and horse meat?

Answer: Iceland

We’ll preface this list by saying that it does not represent all Icelandic food. The country boasts a bounty of fresh seafood, some of the best lamb in the world, outstanding hot dogs, and a deliciously nutritious yogurt-type product called Skyr (which is technically a soft cheese). Greenhouses have made fresh fruits and vegetables much easier to come by—and crops like root vegetables and kale grow just fine in Iceland’s cool, northern climate. Today, Iceland even boasts a number of fine dining restaurants.

That said, many of Iceland’s traditional dishes are famously off-putting to the American palate. In order to survive the cold, harsh winters, Icelanders once had to rely on preservation techniques like smoking, drying, and fermenting to ensure they wouldn’t go hungry.

With that in mind, would you try any of the following “delicacies”?

  1. Shark attack. Certainly the most polarizing Icelandic dish is hakarl: fermented and dried Greenland shark. Not only does the long curing process ensure that hakarl can be safely eaten all year round (hooray!), it also removes toxins from the shark, which is poisonous when eaten fresh. To the uninitiated, hakarl tastes like cleaning products due to its high ammonia content. It has even bested the likes of TV host Anthony Bourdain, who proclaimed it “the single worst, most disgusting, and terrible tasting thing” he’d ever eaten.
  2. Feeling sheepish. “Nose-to-tail” cooking is something of a trend in the U.S. these days—but in cold climates like Iceland, using every edible part of an animal was once a matter of survival. Svio—singed, boiled sheep’s head—covers the “nose” part of the “nose-to-tail” spectrum. The head is singed (to remove the hair), sawed in half, and boiled. While the traditional presentation makes no attempt to disguise what’s on the plate, many adventurous eaters manage to look past this and come to an unexpected revelation: Svio actually tastes pretty good.
  3. Testing your mettle. Closer to the “tail” side of the equation? Hrutspungar: boiled and cured ram’s testicles. We don’t know anyone adventurous enough to look past this one.
  4. Friends, not foods. Despite the fact that culinary tradition is often dictated by necessity, some of the animals eaten in Iceland cause the American moral compass to go haywire. First, there’s the puffin. With a conservation status on the lower threshold of “vulnerable,” some populations of Atlantic puffin have declined, but their largest—and thriving—colony is in Iceland. Most Americans who object to eating puffin do so because they’re so darn cute. Horses—to us, beloved companions—have been raised domestically and eaten in Iceland since the 19th century. And yes, Iceland currently practices commercial whaling. To those who are morally opposed, it matters little that the Minke whale—the only species eaten in Iceland—is not endangered.
  5. Fire water. Particularly for those brave enough to attempt hakarl, there’s one spirit in Iceland that will banish the flavor of any offending food from your mouth: Brennivin. Unsweetened and flavored with caraway, Brennivin is affectionately referred to as “black death”—which, depending on what you ate, might be just what the doctor ordered.

Related Article:

Iceland’s Huldufolk: The surprising secret lives of elves
Iceland is nothing if not quirky, but fortunately most of its cultural quirks are more charming than its food. Case in point: major construction projects can be halted because of elves.
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You can sample the above delicacies (or easily avoid them) with OAT on Untamed Iceland. If you’d rather see puffins in the wild instead of dining on them—while discovering a unique enclave of Icelandic culture—join our optional pre-trip extension in the Westman Islands.

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