I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore when the girl sitting next to me explained that Icelanders don’t have family names. I was still 30,000 feet in the air over the North Atlantic, and I was already intrigued with Iceland. I had only heard stories of the little island country, and they sounded too good to be true – stories about the people being shockingly beautiful and highly educated, the direct descendents of Viking explorers. Stories about the island being covered with natural hot springs and giant glaciers—a little paradise hidden away in the Arctic Circle. These stories were just the beginning.

One of the most arresting facets of Iceland is their cuisine. It’s not quite like anything I’d ever encountered before. Historically, Icelanders have been short on culinary resources—the percentage of arable land on the island is 0.07% and the rest is volcanic rock and glacier. They had to get creative with the little they had. Icelanders had to rely mainly on the sea to provide food. Fish is their main staple, which also accounts for 70% of their export earnings today. Their principal livestock is sheep and many of their lamb dishes are a product of the difficulty of preserving meat in the past. Despite these historical limitations, Iceland has a wonderful culinary culture.

While I was in Reykjavik, an Icelandic friend cooked a traditional lamb dinner, called lambakjöt. The lamb was noticeably better tasting than its U.S. counterpart. Icelanders chalk up this superiority to the breed of Icelandic sheep, which are direct descendents of the sheep Viking settlers brought with them from Scandinavia more than one thousand years ago. Icelandic sheep eat only grass and wander freely over the mountainous countryside. However, what really piqued my interest was the appetizer course served with my meal. It was smoked Icelandic blackbird served with blueberry chutney. The meat was thinly sliced, very dark, and delicious.

A slightly more adventurous dish is slátur, which is blood or liver pudding. It consists of sheep’s blood, meat, suet and spices mixed together and sewn up in a sheep‘s stomach. It is traditionally made during the peak of the slaughtering season, around September and October. It’s a distant “relative” of the Scottish food, haggis. I was lucky enough to sample some homemade slátur. While the “graphic” ingredients might scare some people off, I found this new culinary experience surprisingly good.

In the past, when it was difficult for Icelanders to produce enough food to survive, farmers didn’t let any part of the sheep go to waste. Sheep’s head is still quite popular. It is available in the meat department of any grocery store. I admit it was slightly discombobulating the first time I saw a shrink-wrapped sheep’s head innocently sitting near the beef and chicken cutlets. However, I reminded myself that I was the foreigner here, and must keep an open mind about all the exotic things I was discovering. Another sheep-related dish is soured ram’s testicles. Fortunately for me, these delicacies never quite made it onto my plate – neither are as popular today as they once were.

While in Iceland, you’ll notice that it’s difficult to avoid seeing photographs of puffins everywhere you look. It’s no wonder—these little birds look like they wandered through an explosion at a paint factory. Their beaks are red, orange and yellow, which seem all the brighter against their black and white bodies. There are puffins on postcards, on magazine covers, and even on t-shirts (usually with “Iceland” written in block letters over the photo.). However, what surprised me was learning that they are also considered a traditional delicacy. That’s right! Those cute birds often end up on the wrong end of a butcher’s knife.

A meatless snack visitors should try while in Iceland is skyr. Skyr has the consistency of thick yogurt, and a somewhat similar taste. But it is actually a soft and creamy kind of fresh cheese. It is made from fresh skim milk, and has a high nutritional value without any fat. People often eat it with fresh fruit and sugar. And there’s a dessert made from it, called skyr cake, which is served with fruit and sugar. The Viking settlers brought their knowledge of skyr-making from Norway a thousand years ago. Since then, skyr has disappeared in Scandinavia, and has become a uniquely Icelandic food.

One restaurant needs special mention. Actually, it’s not really a restaurant. It’s a shack, which serves the opposite of Icelandic food. As odd as it might sound, there’s a hotdog stand on the edge of downtown Reykjavik. This walk-up hotdog hut serves the absolute best hotdog I’ve ever eaten. The stand is called Bæjarins Bestu, which translates to “Town’s Best.” Coney Island might be the birthplace of the hot dog, but New Yorkers could learn a thing or two from this little hut. If you’re lucky enough to find yourself in Reykjavik, it’s obligatory that you take yourself down there and order ein med öllu, or “one with everything.” The hotdog comes with ketchup, mustard, raw onions as well as crispy fried onions, and a sauce which I have never had before. I promise diners an experience that Herman Melville called “the shock of recognition.” You’ll realize Bæjarins Bestu makes hot dogs the way they were supposed to be made. The stand is so well known in Iceland that visiting celebrities and foreign dignitaries often stop by for “one with everything.” There’s even a photo inside the hut of Bill Clinton noshing on a dog.

I don’t want to give anyone the wrong idea. The average restaurant in Iceland serves food similar to what would be found in continental Europe or America. There are fast food joints and even Chinese restaurants. The traditional dishes described here are the kind that people serve in their homes. As a visitor, one might have to search these meals out. The best way to sample tradition fare is to make friends with Icelanders and ask them to be your guide through the fascinating world of Icelandic food. Meeting locals is always the most rewarding aspect of travel. It’s the only way to truly learn about a new culture and, I found, Icelanders are unusually friendly, and excited to teach visitors about their culture and history. They have ample reason to be proud of their beautiful country and their delicious cuisine.

And check out these websites for further information:
http://iceland.vefur.is/Business/Food/Restaurants/
http://www.isholf.is/gullis/jo/
http://www.iexplore.com/dmap/Iceland/Dining
http://www.skyr.is

Written by Andrew Naymark
Photograph by Devin Galaudet

For more on Iceland at ITKT