Soon after I returned to the States, I joined some friends at my church’s family camp. Everyone was excited to see me and hear stories from my trip, and apparently people had been reading my blog, because more than one person asked me about/applauded me for all the interesting (and often disgusting) foods I tried. I think I have written about everything I tried, but they’re spread out over several blog entries, so I thought it might be interesting to compile the list now. So, without further ado, I present to you the list of…
Edible Oddities I Consumed in Iceland
(Plus several non-oddities…)
Kjöt, Fiskur, og Egg (Meat, Fish, and Eggs)
- puffin – Yes, the cute little black-and-white bird. Can’t say I enjoyed it much; it’s very strong, almost gamey, and I wasn’t feeling well the day I ate it anyway, but if/when I marry Helgi, I suppose I’ll have to get used to it.
- sviðasulta (sheep’s head jam) – This is what happens when you scrape out all the ooey gooey bits and pieces from inside a sheep’s head and smoosh it together into a gelatinous cube. Just about as terrible as it sounds/looks.
- harðfiskur – Unsalted fish, dried to a straw-like crisp in the sun and wind.
- hákarl – The infamous putrefied Greenland shark. (Disclaimer: I didn’t actually swallow it, but considering that Gordon Ramsay threw it up and Anthony Bourdain described it as the single worst food he’s ever eaten, I think that even keeping it in my mouth for 5 seconds counts as a success.)
- horse meat sausage – I don’t think it was entirely horse meat; it actually tasted like lamb to me. Anyway, I didn’t know it contained horse meat until after I had eaten it. It was really quite good, although I’m still not much of a red meat person.
- pylsa – Icelandic hot dog made with lamb, topped with crunchy fried onions, raw onions, ketchup, mustard, and remoulade.
- lamb – I know this isn’t exactly an exotic food, but I don’t normally eat red meat and actually I don’t think I had ever eaten lamb before.
- hangikjöt – Smoked lamb, thinly sliced and served with flatbrauð and smjör. Not bad, but a little too smokey for my taste.
- lax – I tried smoked and cured varieties, but they were both too raw for me. I’ll stick to cooked smoked salmon.
- this weird egg – I don’t remember what kind of bird this is from, but my host parents insisted they are SO much better than hen eggs. That might be true, but I was too disturbed by the translucent white and the too-orange yolk to really register the taste.
- súrsaðir hrútspungar – Soured ram’s testicles. Actually one of the least heinous of the disgusting-sounding traditional foods. Just a little sour.
- fiskibollur – Like meatballs made of fish. Not bad, not good. I don’t think fish should be quite that chewy.
- fiskbúðingur (fish pudding) – I could have translated the ingredients on the can (yes, it comes in a can), but I figured it was safer not to know. It comes out of the can in one big cylinder, then is sliced and pan-fried. Like the fiskibollur, it was a little too chewy for comfort…
- steinbítur, ýsa, karfi, og meira fiskar – I ate a LOT of fish, and I didn’t always know what kind it was. I do know that I loved the steinbítur and karfi, but found the monkfish rather questionable.
- rúgbrauð – A dense, dark, sweet rye bread made with molasses. One of my favorites. I need to find a recipe.
- pönnukökur – Icelandic pancakes. Basically a crepe. Served with rhubarb jam and whipped cream or simply with sugar. I need to attempt these at home.
- hveitikökur – Flat white bread, similar to pita bread. I ate it for breakfast with smjör and cheese. Mmm.
- flatbrauð – Not sure how to describe this. As the name suggests, it’s very flat, it has a mildly sweet taste, and it’s often paired with smjör and hangikjöt.
Sykur (Sugary Treats)
- rababarasulta – Rhubarb jam. I don’t usually like rhubarb jam in the States, but I think it’s the official jam of Iceland, and it’s very good. Seems to be served with just about anything, from pönnukökur to meatballs.
- hjónabandssæla (‘happy marriage cake’) – Oatmeal cake with jam filling. I tried some from a bakarí in Reykjavík, enjoyed the one Ásta made in Hvolsvöllur, and ordered some on my flight home (the flight attendant was extremely impressed that I could pronounce it correctly).
- hrísgrjónagrautur (rice pudding) – I tried three versions of this. One was already prepared and just had to be heated on the stove; one was homemade by Hrafnhildur, and one came in a little individual-serving container with a side of caramel sauce (hrísmjólk með karamellusósu). They were all magical.
- Prince Polo bars – Okay, so they’re actually Polish, but they are well-loved in Iceland, and I can see why; they’re pretty tasty. Too bad they’re made by Kraft.
- skyr – A thick dairy product, similar to Greek yogurt. Love love love it!
- Nói Síríus chocolate – Yum yum, although I much prefer the dark varieties (which you have to find in the baking section; apparently your average Icelander thinks chocolate over 45% cacao content is not suitable for direct consumption).
- black licorice – Eh. I tried the sweet kind and the salty kind and the in-between kind and while it no longer makes me want to gag, it’s far from my favorite.
- Icelandic moss tea – Mild flavor; nothing too exciting.
- kaffi kaffi kaffi – Mmm. Icelanders don’t know what weak coffee is, and that’s exactly how it should be.
- Egils appelsín (orange soda) – Not much of a soda drinker, but this was pretty good. It was also good in combination with maltextrakt (the mix is known as jólaöl).
Although that is quite the list and I am certainly proud of it, I did miss out on a few important items of Icelandic cuisine. Oh darn. Guess I’ll have to go back.
On the Menu for Next Time:
- whale meat – I actually had the chance to try this but I didn’t take a piece in time and then it was all gone. One of my few regrets.
- svið (sheep’s head) – I could have tried this at our Taste of Iceland dinner, but I refrained, which was good, because as it turns out, our particular sheep’s heads had not been cooked…
- ástarpungar – A round doughnut-like pastry with raisins.
- brennivín – Icelandic schnapps. The name literally means ‘burning wine.’
- Icelandic moss soup – I don’t think this is exactly common dinner faire any more, but I’m assuming you can find it in some tourist-serving restaurants…
That’s all I can come up with. Can you think of anything else I missed that I should add to my list?
It’s been four weeks since I left my Icelandic home. Twenty-eight days without my fellow Snorris, twenty-eight days without a sip of kókómjólk, twenty-eight days without a glimpse of the Reykjavík skyline or the sparkling waters of Patreksfjörður. In some ways it’s hard to believe so much time has passed, and in other ways it seems like it was another lifetime. What I know for sure is that I have missed Iceland every single one of those 28 days, and here, in no particular order, are…
28 reasons why
1. Ásta Sól and my Snorri family. I think a certain amount of loneliness is inevitable when you’ve spent 6 weeks with a group of people, but there’s also a sense of loneliness because I’m no longer surrounded by people who understand (and share) my Iceland obsession.
2. Skyr. Apparently they import Skyr.is to a number of Whole Foods stores across the country, but they don’t carry it at my local store (although they do carry Nói Síríus chocolate!).
3. The starkly beautiful landscape. As a lifelong Northwest girl, I was skeptical when an Icelandic friend told me that tall trees make him feel claustrophobic, but now I understand. I suppose I’ve gotten used to the trees again, but I understand the longing for open spaces and far-away views.
4. Being surrounded by the beautiful rhythms of the Icelandic language, and being able to practice and learn more every day.
5. Stúkuhúsið – My home away from home in Patró. A quaint, cosy, kaffihús with delicious Swiss mochas and a beautiful view of the fjord. The lovely owner, Steina, spoke to me in Icelandic to help me learn.
6. Learning Canadianisms from my fellow Snorris. What can I say, I’m such a keener!
7. My host families, and their incredible kindness and generosity in accepting me as family and taking good care of me.
8. Listening to Of Monsters and Men on my iPod while packing cod at the fish factory (seriously, I do kind of miss this, although I don’t miss being yelled at by the Polish lady…).
9. Watching American and English TV shows with Icelandic subtitles (I do not, however, miss watching Danish TV shows with Icelandic subtitles… too much brain hurt there!)
10. Guesthouse Óðinn – Our very beloved first home in Iceland. I miss our little closet of a room, the midnight sun streaming in the window, the sulfurous hot water, the comfortingly predictable (and yummy) breakfast.
11. Háskóli Íslands. Learning new words like Leðurblökumaðurinn, following Sigurborg to Háma like little ducklings during kaffi time, buying lunch from the mean lady who absolutely refused to speak English.
12. Nature. Whales and puffins, purple lupine, fjords, waterfalls around every bend. The color palette of Icelandic nature is magical… shades of blue and green I’ve never seen in the Northwest.
13. The water. I used to think the tap water here was great, but it tastes stale and mucky compared to Icelandic glacial water.
14. The midnight sun. The first night I was home, the darkness really freaked me out. I’ve gotten used to it again, but it still makes me feel a bit trapped.
15. Bónus – Oh, that dorky little pig logo! Oh, the wall of skinka and pepperoni! Oh, the entire shelf of sósa!
16. C is for Cookie. I only went there a couple times, but so far it’s my favorite kaffihús in the city. Mmm gulrótarkaka…
17. Sitting around the dinner table with Hrafnhildur and Sæmundur and making conversation with the help of the ever-present orðabók.
18. The weather. I know we were blessed with unusually warm and dry weather, but I’ll take 60 degrees (or even 50) over 90 any day.
19. Sjóræningjahúsið – I never got to spend much time there, but I love the cozy atmosphere and the book exchange, and besides, it was always fun to say, hey I’m going to the Pirate House, see you later!
20. The colors and textures of Reykjavík. Brightly-colored roofs, cobblestone streets, artwork on the sides of buildings, that one neon green house on Frakkastigur.
21. The ever-present steeple of Hallgrímskirkja in the skyline.
22. Going for a walk and seeing where the city might take me. Knowing that even a directionally-challenged person like myself can’t really get lost.
23. Strong kaffi, always.
24. Kókómjólk, Prince Polo bars, Daim, those weirdly delicious chocolate-covered rice cakes, waffles from the cart in Austurvöllur, and other tasty foodstuffs.
25. Working at Albína. Learning the Icelandic words for all the bakery goods, meeting tourists from all over the place, chatting with my German friend every day, talking to the locals, becoming an expert at saying, ‘Ég veit ekki, en ég má að spyrja.’
26. Going for walks in the late-night sun.
27. My future husband, Helgi. I will return to be with you soon, my love! 😉
28. A sense of belonging. Knowing I was exactly where I was supposed to be at that moment. A feeling of being completely at home.
Last night I had a dream that I met Jón Gnarr, and he drove me around the city (presumably Reykjavík, although I don’t remember distinctly). We were cruising along have a grand old time, but then I realized I had to get to some sort of Snorri final examination. I think I was briefly concerned, but then I decided that no one would hold it against me if I was late because I was hanging out with Jón Gnarr.
I’m sure this dream stemmed from the fact that I was chatting with someone about Jón Gnarr just the other day, as well as the fact that he was in the news for his recent participation in Reykjavík’s Gay Pride Parade… in any case, it was lovely to hang out with you in my dreams, Jón Gnarr. Maybe some day you can show me around the city in real life – and in that charming pink dress.
Handball, for those who might not know, is kind of a big deal in Iceland. When Iceland competed in the gold medal match at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, nearly 85% of the nation’s population watched, and apparently a water-usage study determined that hardly anyone in Iceland used the bathroom during the last few minutes of the game. The team won silver, and upon their return home, were greeted by 40,000 fans and were awarded the ‘Knight’s Cross.’ So yes, Icelanders take handball very seriously.
When I was in Iceland, more than one person expressed shock that I had never seen a handball game before, and my host mom told me repeatedly, ‘handbolti er svo skemmtilegur!’ So I was glad that the Olympics provided the perfect opportunity to check out Iceland’s favorite sport. I have to admit, I still don’t really understand the rules and strategy, but to my untrained eye it looks like a hybrid of soccer and basketball. Whatever it is, it is indeed entertaining. I didn’t watch every game, but I happened to catch the match against Sweden, which turned out to be both incredibly nerve-wracking and incredibly diverting (they won 33-32). Perhaps my favorite part, though? The rather krípí Swedish coach:
(No offense, Staffan Olsson; I understand you are a great coach and were a fantastic player in your day. And no offense, Swedes. After all, you are my fellow Scandahoovians. But still, I won’t pretend I wasn’t thrilled by Iceland’s victory… 🙂
So, undefeated, Iceland made it to the quarterfinals. To watch their match against Hungary live, I would have had to get up at 3 AM, and while I strongly considered it, I ended up choosing sleep instead. I guess it was a good choice, because if I had watched them lose by one point, I might have been too distraught to go back to sleep.
Despite their defeat, the Icelandic team has been making headlines. Apparently the Icelandic national handball team is the most important team at the Olympics, and longtime player Ólafur Stefánsson is the coolest guy at the Olympics. Pretty impressive superlatives.
Other Pearls of Sporting Wisdom
Not only have the Olympics allowed me to explore one of Iceland’s national pastimes, but they have also helped me expand my Icelandic vocabulary. I’ve been checking out the Íþróttir (sports) page on mbl.is every day. The headlines are more or less the same as they are from American news outlets, so it’s generally easy enough to decipher the main point. Even though I haven’t been able to listen to Icelandic much in the past few weeks, I figure continuing to read it is better than nothing. Anyway, I’ve added some fantastic words to my vocabulary, including this gem:
Alþjóðabadmintonsambandið: The organization that sent home those cheating badminton players.
I’m not usually much of a sports fan, but, like so much of the world, I find myself captivated by the Olympics every two years, so I have to say I’m sad that they are almost at an end once again (especially because I never did get to watch race walking this year!). But perhaps this will help me cope in the absence of the Olympics: mýrarbolti, AKA swamp soccer.