Skip to main content

More than Just Puffin: A Quick Guide to Icelandic Cuisine

Nordic cuisine burst onto the scene thanks to an inherent cool factor and some incredibly creative chefs. Bright culinary minds like René Redzepi made foraging less something hungry folks do when the pickings are slim than a food genre able to fetch the highest prices in the finest restaurants.

Mark Stock/The Manual

In Iceland, it’s a different story. Granted, the nation’s hub of Reykjavik has its own impressive cast of forward-thinking restaurants. Yet, the nature of the nation — an isolated island of volcanoes and tundra about the size of the U.K. — means you have to work with what’s there. Just about anything can be shipped in, but at a real cost. So the descendants of Vikings get creative with what’s in their backyard.

Fermented Shark

A national dish, hákarl translates to “rotten shark” in English. Hungry? It’s made from various kinds of sleeper shark that roam the cold, cold waters of the Atlantic. the shark is buried and cured for several months, fermenting naturally en route. The result is an extremely pungent dish often served in small bites, chased by Brennevín.

fermented shark
Pam Susemiehl/Getty Images

Tourists gag on the stuff all the time and Bourdain famously called it the worst thing he’d ever eaten. Most Icelanders see it more as a fascinating old ritual than a real snack these days. A much better way to get your Icelandic seafood fix is via lobster, which is quite cheap and plentiful there, or any number of local cod recipes (dried versions make a great snack). Minke whale can be found and eaten on the island, but it’s more of a tourist trap than a real dish.


Come summer, Iceland and other Nordic countries are greeted by massive puffin colonies. Locals love the adorable animal (known as lundi), and don’t eat as much of it as they used to. But it’s still considered a delicacy, especially the heart. Smoked, it comes off a bit like pastrami. The hunt is perhaps the most interesting part, involving folks on cliffsides going after the coastal birds with large, butterfly net-like contraptions.

Mark Stock/The Manual


reindeer meat
Morten Falch Sortland/Getty Images

It’s great as a steak or gamey burger and makes a fine stew. Some Icelanders make a soup of reindeer, especially around the holiday stretch. And before you freak out about enjoying a taste of Rudolph, know that they roam the open lands of the eastern part of the country. It’s a little like eating elk or antelope here in the states. There are some intriguing recipes online and most suggest that if you can’t find reindeer, substitute deer. A great reference is this cookbook.

Boreal Fruits

A lot of Icelandic produce is grown in greenhouses. But there are some natives too, like crowberries, a subarctic edible that imparts a fresh air of brightness to all it touches. It can make for a great liqueur or syrup to top any number of Icelandic breads. The fruit can also be concentrated and served as a lovely complement to another Icelandic staple in lamb.

Rosmarie Wirz/Getty Images

Juniper berries function much the same way, offering a bit more in the way of herbaceous flavors. There’s also the bilberry, which the northernmost winery in the world likes to use. It’s like a blueberry, only smaller, like so many boreal things. There are wild strawberries, too, though they are tougher to come across. All of these little fruit work wonderfully with the many root vegetables and wild herbs that exist in the area. And if you don’t believe me, check out an always-entertaining episode of New Scandinavian Cooking.

You can find some of these ingredients at specialty butchers and Scandinavian stores stateside. Alternatively, you can always honor Viking tradition with a good hot dog and beer.

Editors' Recommendations

Mark Stock
Mark Stock is a writer from Portland, Oregon. He fell into wine during the Recession and has been fixated on the stuff since…
The International and Regional Cuisines Poised for a Takeover in 2022
Turkish kebab

From Italian to Indian to Japanese to French to Mexican, international influences are and always have been a major force in the development of American cuisine. At the same time, “American cuisine” can feel like a pretty reductive term, considering the diverse and hyper-local dishes and dining traditions present in smaller regions of the U.S.

As the digital age continues to expand and globalize our culture, American diners regularly prove their interest in encountering and trying out culinary traditions from around the world, venturing past their “usual” foreign cuisine picks and sampling less-familiar dishes in an effort to expand their palates and discover new favorites. When it comes to international and regional dishes expected to grow in popularity over the course of 2020 and in the years to follow, chefs and restaurateurs who participated in this year’s South Beach Wine and Food Festival named a few that adventurous eaters would be wise to watch.
Persian Cuisine

Read more
Why Tex-Mex Cuisine Deserves to Be Taken Seriously
Enchiladas with rice and beans.

Regional Mexican cuisines play a major role in upscale dining environments these days; Prestigious restaurants like Pujol in Mexico City, Cosme in New York City, Topolobampo in Chicago, and Broken Spanish in Los Angeles give traditional ingredients and preparations a contemporary fine-dining twist, showcasing the complex spice blends, bright citrus notes, and flavorful proteins so closely identified with Mexican cooking.

But for many Americans, their colloquial use of “Mexican food” doesn’t necessarily involve super-authentic (or high-end) dishes or ingredients. At fast-casual eateries, nationwide chains like Chili’s, and even at fast-food spots like Taco Bell, the food on offer more closely resembles the unique blend of Mexican flavors and American ingredients and techniques popularly known as “Tex-Mex.”

Read more
Ditch the Bottle Opener Because Canned Wines are Having More than Just a Moment
underwood cans

If you haven’t heard of canned wine yet, you’ve been living under a very large rock. It’s the fastest-growing thing in contemporary wine and injects the sometimes stagnant industry with portability, frugality, and a bit of hipness.
Union Wine Company in Oregon is all-in when it comes to the crushable wine movement. They recently moved into a 43,000-square-foot space, armed with both bottling and canning lines. Presently, it’s the most automated and efficient facility in the American canned wine realm. It’s turning out roughly 650 cans per minute in an effort to keep pace with a genre of drinks that experienced growth of close to 70% in 2018. 
“The new facility has allowed us the ability to easily move between bottling and canning,” says Ryan Harms, Union’s founder and owner. That’s doubly important for his outfit, which puts some wine to bottle and cans the rest (under the Underwood, Kings Ridge, and Alchemist monikers). “In the first six months of this year, we’ve packaged 350,000 cases of wine, which is more than we packaged in the entirety of 2018.”

Underwood wine Union Wine Company
Union helped spearhead a genre of wines that now includes dozens of producers from coast to coast. Taking on its own production line was a matter of scale. They are officially the largest producer in Oregon and will extend that lead ahead of the likes of A to Z Wineworks and Willamette Valley Vineyards courtesy of their new space.
Meanwhile, other producers are canning lesser amounts or look to bring in services like Tinman or Iron Heart for specialty packaging. The fact that Union has taken on the entire process from bud-break in the vineyard to sealing the wine in aluminum speaks to their faith in the next generation of wine. Expect to see more and more of the stuff everywhere from your local supermarket to your local soccer stadium.
Of course, there are other arguments in the movement’s favor. The environmental impact is less harsh than the traditional glass-and-cork route. Moreover, the decrease in weight (thanks to a greater ratio of wine-to-packaging) makes shipping more efficient. Also, in a more subtle way, canned wine echoes the increasingly thirsty younger wine audience, eager for something less traditional that's likely collecting dust in some musty cellar.

Read more