Iceland is known for its breathtaking landscape, hot volcanic pools and, in 2016 at least, for trouncing the English at soccer.
It’s not yet known, however, for its haute cuisine.
While an increase in international visitors means that’s likely to change soon, in the past it’s been down to the scarcity of arable land in this volcanic country on the edge of the Arctic.
But Icelanders have always been resourceful, and while some of their heritage foods might be quite exotic for a visitor, for locals they provide a direct link to the past.
Here are 10 of the most unusual.
Kæstur hákarl (“treated shark”) is the one infamous Icelandic dish most tourists are made to try at least once.
Hákarl, in short, is Greenland shark – or other sleeper shark – which has been prepared by a fermentation process (buried underground for 6-12 weeks, actually) and then hung to dry for four to five months.
It has a distinct tang of, well, urine, and is served in small cubes as a sort-of hors d’oeuvre, often followed by shots of Brennivin (see below).
Kæstur hákarl is available in Icelandic stores all year round, but is mainly eaten as part of the midwinter þorrablót – a feast where Icelanders tuck into traditional food.
This isn’t some centuries-old ritual though.
“The þorrablót as we know it, with all the tourist-scaring food, is only a 50-year-old or so tradition,” says Reykjavík-based folklore scholar Arngrímur Vídalín.
He says the þorrablót of Icelandic sports team Stjarnan is one of the country’s biggest parties of the year, with many people shelling out big rock concert-style money for tickets.
For the brave, hákarl tastings are offered in many places in the Icelandic capital. One such is the Islenski Barinn restaurant in downtown Reykjavík.
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Icelanders also, according to legend, sometimes eat the friendly seabird puffin.
Visitors can actually order them in many tourist restaurants in Reykjavík, usually smoked to taste almost like pastrami, or broiled in lumps resembling liver.
But do Icelanders really eat cute birds with colorful beaks?
Says Arngrímur: “I’ve never tasted puffin, but I can tell you that until the age of 15 or so I thought that puffin was explicitly a British bird.
“I had absolutely no idea they could be found in Iceland, so you can imagine my surprise when all these tourist shops with plush puffins started opening.
“But I’ve heard they taste good.”
Smoked puffin is served as tapas, together with other Icelandic specialties, at Reykjavík’s Tapas Barinn restaurant.
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Skyr is a dairy product, closely resembling full-fat Greek yogurt but with a much milder flavor.
It’s been a part of Icelandic cuisine for more than a thousand years, and is made of pasteurized skimmed milk and a bacteria culture only found in Iceland.
It’s traditionally served with milk and a topping of sugar, often for breakfast, and is usually an essential dish of all Icelandic childhoods.
It’s now begun making the leap beyond Iceland’s borders, having recently been introduced to supermarkets in the US and UK – in a variety of fruit flavors.
Skyr is available in most Icelandic shops and grocery stores. Local Bónus supermarkets will almost always stock it.
Bónus, Laugavegi 59,101 Reykjavík
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The first seafood on our list: Harðfiskur is basically fish jerky made from wind-dried fish (often cod, haddock or seawolf).
It can be found in all supermarkets in Iceland.
Harðfiskur, which Icelanders usually eat slathered with butter, often comes in colorful packaging illustrated with comic figures to attract young children.
It’s no surprise Icelanders get hooked on fish at a young age.
Like skyr, harðfiskur is a standard product found in most shops in Iceland, like the 10-11 chain.
10-11, Kaupvangur við Mýrarvegur, Akureyri; +354 461-2933
This is the one dish that’ll appeal to most visitors.
Fish stew, or plokkfiskur, consists of boiled fresh cod or haddock filets, mashed together with potatoes and a roux-based white sauce.
It’s often served with Icelandic rye bread and butter.
This is proper family and comfort food, and most local families will have their own version.
In the past, plokkfiskur was a means to preserve leftovers, though today most families buy fresh fish to make the stew.
Either way, it’s delicious.
One of the best plokkfiskur in Reykjavík can be had at the Fish & More restaurant on Skólavörðustígur.
6. Smoked sheep’s head
Svið, or smoked sheep’s head, is another traditional dish and also part of the midwinter Þorrablót celebrations.
This one sees a sheep’s head cut in half, singed to remove the fur, boiled with the brain removed, and served with scoops of mashed potato and turnip.
Svið is another throwback to leaner times when no part of the animal was allowed to go to waste.
Can’t resist trying a plate of svið with all the trimmings? The Fljótt og Gott restaurant in Reykjavík’s main bus terminal will oblige.
7. Sheep’s head jelly
Icelanders really know how to party. Another essential ingredient of the Þorrablót celebrations is sheep’s head jelly.
The jelly is usually made in fall and preserved in a soured state. It’s used as the basis for sviðasulta (head cheese), made from bits of svið pressed into gelatinous loaves pickled in whey.
While not known for its pleasant smell, some Icelanders still like to eat it.
Says Vídalín: “Regular people don’t celebrate Þorrablót so much, it’s more of a workplace thing, and few people actually like the food.
“I like it but my family doesn’t, so I can’t really buy it for myself because they claim they can smell it a mile away.”
Sheep’s head jelly can be tried as part of a plate of traditional Icelandic food at Cafe Loki, opposite the impressive Hallgrímskirkja cathedral in Reykjavík.
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Somehow Icelanders will need to get all those delicacies down, and there’s no better lubricant for this than Brennivín.
The Black Death, or svartidauði, as it’s also sometimes called, is a clear, unsweetened schnapps.
It’s considered Iceland’s signature alcoholic drink and the traditional beverage for Þorrablót.
Brennivín is made from fermented grain or potato mash and flavored with caraway, and so resembles popular Scandinavian liquor akvavit.
The drink’s stark black label bearing an outline of Iceland was initially intended to turn customers away (alcohol sales in Iceland are tightly controlled through state-operated Vínbúð stores), but it instead became the Icelandic signature tipple.
Visitors can stock up on some Black Death at Iceland’s largest Vínbúð in downtown Reykjavík on Austurstræti.
Vínbúð, Austurstræti 10a, 101 Reykjavík; +354 562-6511
9. Light beer
Visitors who experience Reykjavík’s hard-partying weekend nightlife might be surprised to learn Iceland was a dry country for eight decades until 1989.
Beer could still be purchased during those dry years, but was prohibited from containing more than 2.25% alcohol by volume – less than half the strength of Budweiser in the US.
Prohibition officially ended on March 1, 1989, the anniversary of which is marked every year as Beer Day.
But even today “proper” beers can only be bought at one of the 46 Vínbúð stores across Iceland.
Anyone planning to buy beer from an ordinary supermarket for a night on the tiles in Reykjavík or Akureyri should be aware they’ll only find light beer – that evening out might not be as fun as intended.
Light beer is readily available in supermarkets throughout the country, for example Samkaup Strax in Seyðisfjörður in the east of Iceland.
Samkaup Strax, Vesturvegur 1, 710 Seyðisfjörður; +354 472-1201
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10. Prins Polo
After all that delicious food and refreshing local beverages, one might feel the need for dessert.
One of Iceland’s favorite chocolate bars is, strangely, a Cold War throwback from Poland.
Prince Polo-branded chocolate-covered wafers – known in Iceland as Prins Póló – were an instant hit when they were introduced to Iceland in 1955 and have been ever since.
A locally produced chocolate bar alternative, Hraun – meaning “lava” – was introduced in 1973 in an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of Prince Polo, but failed to break the Polish wafer’s stranglehold.
The sugary treat has even inspired local musicians – most significantly alternative rock act Prins Póló.
“If I’m buying myself a little treat at a gas station I always go for Prins Póló, says Myrra Rós, a musician from Reykjavík. “I also like the band.”
Chocolatey Cold War remnants can be grabbed before heading out to the scenic Westfjords at the gas station at Staðarskáli on the N1 ring road.
Staðarskáli service station, Hrútafirði v/Norðurlandsveg, 500 Staður; +354 440-1336
Marcel Krueger is a writer and translator based in Dublin and Berlin. He mostly writes about history, travel and beer – or all three combined.