Despite signs offering whale and puffin tasting menus on Rekjavik's main drags, Icelanders stay away from such widely loved animals when it comes to feeding themselves. Tourists (and whale-eating countries like Japan) may be keeping these industries alive in the country, but when it comes to living like the locals, visitors should focus on more sustainable seafood options, and even eat a hot dog or two. The following foods are ones that Icelanders are actually proud to call Icelandic, and eat regularly. Except for the rotten shark. That once-a-year consumable is totally tradition-driven.
Iceland's robust fishing and aquaculture industries are important to the country both for dietary and export purposes. The country's surrounding fisheries are about seven times the size of the landmass itself, and if you're ordering Arctic charr anywhere in the world, it's likely to have originated in the waters (or responsible fish farms) of Iceland — the country leads the globe in production of the species. But there's nothing like enjoying a fresh piece of Atlantic salmon, Atlantic cod or charr in the same place it was produced. Today, Icelanders eat almost 50kg of seafood per person per year according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization — that's more than 100 pounds per person, split up over about twice per week.
Don't call it yogurt, and don't tell an Icelander that you've had it anywhere else. This skim-milk product is technically closer to a cheese than it is to yogurt because it's strained and concentrated during the centuries-old production process — think a more tangy version of the Italian mascarpone. Skyr is naturally high in protein and low in fat and Icelanders are obsessed with it; the snack shows up on both breakfast and dessert menus (skyr cake, anyone?) and on the shelves at convenience stores (packaged to look suspiciously like yogurt). Such a perfect dish certainly comes with high demand — most of the cattle farmed in Iceland are farmed for the country's dairy industry.
If an Icelander encourages you to try the local delicacy that is rotten shark, you can pretty much assume that the joke's on you. The "delicacy" (if anything that smells and tastes that bad can be called a delicacy) is a traditional food of Iceland's ancestors, but it's so rancid that today it's mainly only eaten in remembrance during the ancient month of Þorri, which falls between late January and late February. Lucky for contemporary Icelanders, the country no longer relies on the fermented flesh for subsistence, but curious tourists still shell out for a taste of it to check it off their Iceland to-do list. Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir — the country's most well-known food writer — wrote an entire book about certain traditional Icelandic dishes including both rotten shark and roasted sheep skull called Does Anyone Actually Eat This?, so maybe take her cue and don't.
Brennivín ("Black Death")
If you're still wondering just how awful rotten shark is, consider this: It's traditional to wash away the taste of the fish with successive shots of Brennivín, a locally distilled schnapps nicknamed "Black Death." The liquor is an 80-proof grain or potato alcohol that's steeped in caraway seeds, giving the herbaceous drink a flavor somewhere between licorice and rye bread. Drink the shot as cold (and as quickly) as possible; at Matur og Drykkur, a Reykjavik restaurant specializing in traditional Icelandic cuisine, that means served in shot glasses made entirely of ice.
Hot dogs are unofficially recognized as Iceland's national dish. These aren't just any hot dogs, though. No, Iceland takes the fast food staple to the next level by filling a snappy natural casing with a combination of locally reared lamb, pork and beef and topping it with a condiment combo that includes both raw and crispy onions, ketchup, sweet brown mustard and a remoulade of mayo, capers, mustard and herbs. They're available in pretty much any gas station in the country, but the most famous are found at Baejarins Beztu — a tiny stand in Reykjavik that's served the sandwiches since the 1930s.
Icelanders are proud of their lamb. The country's 2,000 sheep farmers allow their animals to roam freely across the wild countryside from late spring to fall, during which time the sheep graze on Icelandic moss, wild grass and berries, and take on a terroir that's unique to the island nation. When the fresh meat is available come September and October, locals take to making it disappear. And as the amount of daylight begins to dwindle when winter sets in, a warm bowl of lamb soup (stocked with vegetables like carrots, cabbage, potatoes and onions) is just as comforting and nostalgic for Icelanders as the beloved chicken noodle is in the States.
It turns out that the same lamb that grazed freely and fattened itself while foraging for berries and then made a great hot dog or soup also makes a nice cold cut. Thin slices of the smoky loaf are eaten on top of buttered flatbread year round and especially during the summer camping season. The smoked, salted and dried meat takes center stage on Christmas day when it's served as a main course and topped with a creamy white béchamel sauce.
Half of Iceland's yearly cod catch is cured in salt fish factories that dot the circumference of the country's coast, and salted fillets show up on menus of Reykjavik's best restaurants like Kopar Restaurant and Snaps Bistro and Bar. You can also expect to find locally smoked salmon and trout at select restaurants, and bags of dried fish jerky (literally translated as "hard fish" — the locals soften it by spreading butter on top) in any convenience store. And if you're truly committed to experiencing the Icelandic lifestyle, you should start every day off with a spoonful of Lysi cod liver oil for a dose of omega-3 and vitamin D (essential during the short days of winter). Lysi has been producing fish oil in Iceland since 1938.
Nearly all fruits and vegetables consumed in Iceland are grown under UV lights in greenhouses, which means farm-fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, and basil are available year-round — a true treat during dark Nordic winters. Friðheimar, a family-owned and operated farm situated on a prime spot in the Golden Circle, is arguably the most famous greenhouse farm in the country — and a true testament to Iceland's sustainability efforts. Knútur Rafn Ármann and his wife Helena Hermundardóttir.purchased the farm 1995 and began growing tomatoes in a geothermal energy-powered greenhouse; today, following years of upgrades to the facilities, the farm produces 370 tons of vine-fresh tomatoes annually. Visitors can sample the produce right next to the vine during a tour of the property, then feast at the on-site restaurant, which uses tomatoes in nearly everything on the menu — tomato soup, tomato beer, and even tomato ice cream.