As a foodie I love to try new foods. I also love to learn about a culture by opening myself up to what they eat even if it means deviating from my own dietary norm.
Rejecting food from others in a cultural exchange or missing an opportunity to experience a food significant to that culture due to my own choice would, for me, be an injustice. Therefore, I am putting nearly 20 years of eating habits aside for the whole year of deviation trip.
I will try anything—even if presented with food I would never consider eating while back in the U.S.
My first norm-deviating food experience occurred while in Iceland.
Not much has changed in the diet of Icelanders since the Viking age. The majority of the Icelandic diet comes from what surrounds the country—the sea.
Einar, my host in Reykjavik, told me if I wanted to try a snack that locals commonly munch on, then I should try Hvammsfiskur (ravine fish), a type of fish jerky. Not crunchy or soft, this somewhat tough, dried fish reminded me of tilapia but slightly duller in flavor.
If I had the opportunity to eat more I probably would as I enjoy the taste of fish and it’s a very healthy snack.
For a home cooked meal on our Ring Road trip, Fabrice and I tried some fish cakes from the grocery. We paired them with couscous and a side of sauteed zucchini and carrots.
The fishcakes were great. I actually craved them for the rest of the trip.
Speaking of seafood, another mainstay in the Icelandic diet—although a more controversial one—is whale. Minke whale, specifically.
Even thinking about eating whale was completely foreign to me prior to Iceland. When I was twelve years old, I told my family to stop making me beef for meals. Hamburgers, steaks, meatloaf, ground beef in tacos, chili, nachos—if it had cow in it, I didn’t want it.
Over the following couple of years I eventually eighty-sixed all mammals from my diet. I even went as far as to eat turkey bacon for quite some time before admitting to myself that I simply loved bacon and could not give it up (it’s the only food from a mammal I do eat). Why did I omit all of these meats? Simply enough—I did not like the taste, and the more I thought about it, the more I felt bad about eating other mammals.
When my road-trip buddy, Fabrice, began talking about eating whale at some point, I held back a cross between a frown and a cringe. I heard from one Icelander in Reykjavik that whale is not that commonly eaten. Perhaps because of the controversy surrounding hunting and eating it, people are less forthcoming about just how common it is.
In Akreyuri, the northern, second largest city in Iceland, locals told us that whale is more commonly consumed than we were originally told. We were even told how to prepare it. We easily found Hrefnusteik (Minke whale steak) in the local grocery store in Akreyuri. We pan seared it the way the local suggested—a couple minutes on each side leaving it purple and raw in the center.
I may have had a slight influence on what came next, however—I just couldn’t eat it that bloody so I had it made a bit well-done. The meat ended up being somewhat tough as a result, but it still kept its flavor which was somewhere between tuna and beef. I just pretended every bite tasted completely like tuna and I managed it. I’m glad I experienced whale, but one piece of whale consumed was enough for a lifetime for me!
In times of Vikings, the harsh environment often meant only keeping around the strongest horses and using the weaker or flawed ones as a source of food. Sacrificing and eating horse in honor of the Nordic Gods was also common practice until Iceland became a Christian nation and banned the practice some 1000 years ago. People still ate horse despite the ban and consumption continues today. Hence, Einar told me that a traditional (and cheap) meal in Iceland includes horse meat. Horse steaks and sausages are found in local grocery stores. We picked up some horse sausages and paired it with some simple mashed potatoes that Einar sweetened. The combination made for a simple but filling meal on my very first night in Iceland.
Admittedly, I was a bit horrified to eat horse. They have been so integral to human history and are respected and regarded as loyal and intelligent pets, friends, champions, guardians, and national treasures in much of American culture.
Nevertheless, I stabbed my fork into the first piece raised it to my lips and gulped it down the way Simba ate the grub in the Lion King.
The sausage was very salty and had a hint almost of an American hot dog or other pork sausage. It wasn’t half bad especially with the sweet mashed potatoes to balance it out.
Other food I ate in Iceland
I had other, less unusual foods, meals, and local beverages while in Iceland, too. Here are some of them:
Skyr – a non-fat yogurt made of skim milk specific to Scandinavian countries that is a bit creamier than Greek yogurt. I loved it. Icelanders eat skyr at every meal and for every snack all the time. On the Ring Road Trip, little containers of it were easy to grab and eat in the mornings when we were trying to get on the road quickly.
Hot dogs – I was told by many people I must go to the hot dog cart, Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, in Reykjavik.
The thing to order is one “with everything” (brown mustard, ketchup, raw onions, fried onions, and remoulade) but somehow I only ended up with their special brown mustard on mine.
Oh well, I ate it happily.
The hot dog was pretty good – crispy on the outside, hot in the middle. The sauce was sweet. I do wish I had gotten it with all the extra toppings, though! Bill Clinton is famous for going there and ordering one with just yellow mustard – they even named this version after him. Locals say this is sort of a joke (making fun of him) because he had the opportunity to deviate from the American hot dog norm and try it the Icelandic way but passed up the chance.
Calamari tacos – These were crispy squid between tiny tortillas that I ate in the Reykjavik backpackers dining space my last night in Iceland. Light and flavorful. The perfect mid-afternoon snack as I wrote a blog and waited for friends I had met in Akureyri to show up.
“Cool American” Doritos – I bought and ate these with everybody back home in mind. Apparently Icelanders don’t know any other way to describe the flavor “ranch” other than to call it American. “This tastes like American.” I like to think “Cool American” is just the Icelandic way of paying a compliment to the United States for having awesome junk food.
Pizza – I had a plain old cheese pizza the night we stayed in Kirk which was actually quite good. Being on a budget, it was the only thing on the menu that was near 1000 krona (under $10) that would be filling enough to be a meal. It was a cross between thin crust and deep-dish. The sauce was right, the cheese was good, and there was minimal grease. As a pizza snob New Yorker, I say “well done, Iceland!”
Gull and Viking Beer – In Reykjavik, Gull was the quintessential cheap Icelandic beer of choice. We bought Viking beer halfway around the Ring Road and drank it for the remainder of the trip. Tastes like any typical American lager, but I felt way more bad-ass drinking it.
Reyka Vodka - A vodka that popped up all over Iceland, I actually tried this at the end of my visit in the airport. I then bought a few to share as gifts with friends and family in Germany. I think Reyka is special because of how it's made. Crafted in the small seaside town of Borgarnes (our last Ring Road stop) with arctic spring water and Carter-Head Still, Reyka is filtered through lava rocks! It's as if you're ingesting the fire of Iceland but it goes down refreshingly smooth.
I love to share what I eat, and I want all my readers to enjoy it, too! I’d be happy to hear if any suggestions on what I should eat in countries I will be visiting in the next year. Anything in Germany I must try? Thailand? Indonesia? Australia? New Zealand? Is there another country you think I should visit just to try a particular food, or maybe a food you tried in some country that was a bit out-of-the-norm?—let me know in the comments!