The World’s Saddest Cuisines: Iceland

Originally published by America Fun Fact of the Day.

Founded in the 9th century by the 9th century version of those crazy people who pay thousands of dollars to climb Mount Everest, Iceland’s name conjures the image of an entire Nordic island shouting, “Come at me, bro” to nature. “So, you say it’s called Iceland, and its way the hell up north?  Sign me up!” It hardly see sunlight during the winter, and only manages to sustain a human population because when God tried to make an island that no one would dare live on, he forgot about the volcanoes he accidentally put there. When “well, the cold’s not so bad, thanks to the volcanoes” is something an entire nation can say, it should come as no surprise that the island itself doesn’t offer its inhabitants much in the way of “food” or “light” or “joy” so Icelanders have had to make due in their own ways. Which means they have extremely depressing national cuisines.

First, a quick aside as to what we mean by “depressing cuisine.” This is not an article about how Iceland’s food is bad, though much of these entries are truly awful. No, it’s an article about an entire culinary tradition that just, ugh, makes you feel a bit down when you think about it. It’s less “gross food” and more “that feeling you get in your soul when you see a crying child eat a single boiled potato for dinner.” Got it? Good.

Thorramatur

Yes, this is what Iceland eats. We’re sorry you had to find out this way.

Now, when we as a species first started cultivating food for established societies, we had to discover ways for the food to stay edible as long as possible. These preservation processes were essential for the survival of our species, but we usually tried to find ways to make the food stay fresh longer while also improving the taste.  Salt, for example, is something that is good, and is good at preserving food. That’s why we have so many salted dishes like jerky—salt adds taste and longevity to your food.

Iceland doesn’t have a lot of salt, however, and they felt it was too much of a pain to make salt by boiling down the water from the ocean, so they improvised. Which means that they would often use fermentation, specifically fermented whey, to preserve their food.

Let’s just say that again in case you missed it. Salt was too much of a luxury for Iceland, so they had to settle for “letting things rot a little bit” as an alternative. That’s kind of what we’re talking about with the whole “sad cuisine” thing. And it led to the creation of some truly depressing national dishes, such as…

Fjallagrasamjólk (Iceland Moss Soup)

Listen, Iceland is doing just fine now. Well, sure, they basically murdered their economy that one time they decided to say, in unison, “All 300,000 of us living here can afford to build mansions through bank loans at the same time, this seems sustainable!” But, you know, they’re not starving over there or anything. Look at Bjork! But that clearly wasn’t always the case, considering that they have traditional dishes that need to use something called Iceland moss that involves eating moss.

Now, don’t worry. The name “Iceland Moss” is a misnomer. But do worry, because it’s technically a lichen. Considering that lichen is half fungus, half algae, it still falls firmly in the “depressing” camp.  Hell, most lichens in Europe were so contaminated by fallout from Chernobyl that they’re not fit for consumption, but Iceland is so far in the middle of desolate nowhere that their weird, bitter lichen didn’t get radioactive. Hooray. We won’t mince words here; the first time Iceland moss was consumed by a person it was because he or she was so desperate for food that they went down on their knees and started licking a damn rock. That might not be in the literature anywhere, but we can guarantee that’s how that went down.

Anyway, Iceland found a bitter, colorless, currently relatively radiation-free lichen that grows on rocks currently and thought, let’s mix some milk in there and make a soup.  No other country thought to turn lichen into soup for a reason. Icelanders also use the moss to make a cough syrup that is extremely bitter despite being just, doused in sugar. This dish is the equivalent of making a soup out of codeine and milk, which probably is something that at least someone in the Meth Belt has tried. Cough syrup moss as a soup is the most depressing way to start a meal that doesn’t include a pre-dinner wake for the family puppy.

Gellur (Cod tongues)

Don’t worry about the name, folks!  Gellur is not actually made from the tongues of cod! No, it’s just the fleshy, triangular muscle you can find behind and under the tongue, by its throat! What’s that?  It didn’t even occur to you that cod have tongues? That’s…well that’s a good point. And what else did you say? Oh, right, yeah that still sounds pretty terrifying. And desperate. When you have to find a way to use the tongue-area of a fish to find suitable sustenance, that’s pretty bad. It’s even worse when you realize the amount of effort it takes to get any edible meat out of these suckers.  First, you have to soak them overnight in cold water, because the meat’s surrounded by a thick membrane that needs to break down. If you’re picturing a bucket full of cod tongues soaking in a bucket in your kitchen overnight, and are gagging, well we have some bad news for you because the rest of this article is going to be a real chore. Anyway, once the soaking is done, you want to scrape off the slime before you boil it for 10 to 15 minutes. Yes, that’s right. Slime.

The cod tongues are typically then served with plain boiled potatoes, rye bread and butter, and the heart-wrenching sobs your father makes as he explains that they no longer need him working at the fish monger, and that things are going to get a bit lean this winter.

Lysi (Cod Liver Oil)

Lysi, a cod liver oil taken as a supplement in Iceland, has been described as tasting like “fish shits.” It’s taken as a dietary supplement in Iceland, because when you consider the lean picking they have to choose from animal-wise, they need it.  There’s nothing wrong with taking a supplement, or even taking fish oil as a supplement. But, the thing is, lysi doesn’t come in a capsule. If the very concept of “Children’s Cod Liver Oil” isn’t enough to make you want to hug your kids and tell them you’ll never leave them, the fact that it’s a liquid oil that you are supposed to spoon feed to your children twice a day should at least make you break out into a heartbreaking rendition of “Cat’s in the Cradle.”

Slátur (Blood Pudding)

To quote one handy guide to Iceland, which maintains the general stance of, “STAY AWAY FROM OUR FOOD”, “Slátur literally means ‘slaughter.’ It’s a dish made out of sheep’s innards, blood and fat. This is a dish that’s very regularly served with the sheep’s head. It’s Iceland’s answer to black or white pudding – or the Scottish haggis. Blood pudding is also served at many gatherings along with sweet rice pudding, which is a slightly odd combination.”  JESUS CHRIST.  WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU ICELAND!? First of all, who is in charge of naming up there? You don’t call your food “slaughter.” That’s insane. We don’t call hot dogs “squeal little piggies not even your surprising intelligence will save you now” because we know a little something about how to handle delicious foods that come from unsavory sources. It’s called marketing, Iceland, look it up.

Iceland, we did not need your “daring” take on haggis, because no one asked you for that. We get it, sheep are hard to come by food wise, and you wanted to find a way to use all of that sucker, blood and all.  But also, “blood, fat and innards, mixed together and served with the head” is less a well-rounded meal, and more like a scene from an Eli Roth horror film.

Oh, and you’re curious about the whole sheep’s head thing? Good point. We might as well address this too…

Svið (Sheep’s Head)

Oh no. Svið is a traditional dish that, well, there’s not much to say more than “a damn sheep head.” The head is normally cut in half (we’re so sorry we’re telling you all this), singed to remove the fur (knowledge is pain, we know) and boiled with the brain removed (think of a box of kittens that’ll bring joy back in your life, we’re so sorry). Sometimes it’s cured in lactic acid because we just give up at this point.  If the thought of eating a sheep’s head as your dinner makes you deeply sad, well it should. Not surprisingly, it first came about when there was so little food that no part of the slaughtered animal could afford go to waste.

Here’s the thing. We’re not against eating heads. There’s some good meat on there!  Have you ever had headcheese? It’s pretty good! That, however, is not the same as starring into the eyes of Lamb Chop as you pick meat off its cheek to slowly expose more and more of its sinister death grin. Icelanders say that the eyes are the best part, though it’s unclear if they’ll tell you that before or after they point out that on a cosmic scale everything you accomplish in this life is meaningless. If you think that the somber act of eating a sheep’s head would probably lead to some pretty weird and kind of creepy superstitions surrounding the eating of this dish, well you’d be absolutely right! Apparently, it’s considered taboo by some to eat the ears, since ears bear the mark of the animal’s owner, and you don’t want to be accused of being a sheep head robber, which we just learned is something people in Iceland have to worry about, can someone please call on Iceland and check in to see that they’re doing okay?

Another superstition behind the eating of svið has to do with the small bone underneath the tongue. Icelanders claim that, and this is really bad, if you don’t break it, a child that cannot speak will remain silent forever. What the hell! We don’t care if that’s some weird folk superstition, break the bone, break the bone you monsters! Who even thinks of that? “I’m eating a sheep’s head, you know, here’s a tiny bone in its mouth, I’m willing to bet dollars to donuts that if I leave this unbroken it’ll create a mute child.” Oh, that’s right, Iceland. Iceland is the one who thinks of that. Holy hell.

 Man, Iceland has seen some stuff.

Hvalspik (cured whale blubber)

Unlike just about every nation in the world, residents of Iceland still eat whales, which is a thing that angers a lot of people. For some of you, the thought of majestic sea creatures being ruthlessly harvested to feed a nation of 300,000 might make you a bit sad. It doesn’t matter so much that the whales they hunt are not endangered, and that there are strict limits in place, it’ll just bum you out. That’s fair. That’s the purpose of this article. We’re telling you about food that’s just, sad. But the rest of you who, like us, are cackling, “hahaha, whatever, screw whales, I saw that one Ron Howard movie with Thor!” you’ll see the wind taken right out of your sails when you hear about Hvalspik, cured whale fat that’s often served in a þorramatur, or selection of cured meat and fish products.

It’s not that eating a hunk of whale fat is depressing, though it is. It’s that when this dish was created, there were no commercial whaling fishing options for Iceland. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that they had the capacity to go out and systematically whale the region. So when this dish first appeared on menus, the whale could only be procured from beached whales. And the name hvalspik originated from the word hvalreki, which means beached whale in Icelandic. So this dish originally came from whales that just happened to wash up dead on their shores, which is bad. But do you know what’s even worse? The word hvalreki also translates to the rough equivalent of “jackpot.”

That’s right. The Icelandic word for “I just got lucky, hell yeah!” is “there’s a giant sea monster dying on the beach, we can now cure its blubber and eat for months!” Hug a stranger, folks, it could brighten their day. What? No, we’re not crying, that’s just allergies. Just let it rest, okay?   

Kæstur Hákarl (fermented shark)

Eating shark is actually not that depressing, if you think about it. It’s almost triumphant. “I have captured a predator of the sea, and now I will eat its tender flesh!” And shark meat, depending on the shark, is not bad on its own. Similar consistency to swordfish, when it’s grilled with seasoning. Iceland does not grill and season their shark, though. They cure it and leave it hanging for five months to allow it to develop a “particular consistency.” Kæstur hákarl, everybody.

Iceland actually has a pretty good reason why they ferment the meat first, and it’s not for that delicious rotting flavor. They ferment the meat for so long because the shark they use, the Greenland shark, is poisonous when fresh. Yes, they found a shark that has poison meat and thought, “Wait a minute…we can fix this.”  So in fermenting and curing the fish,  the shark fully decays, removing toxins from its flesh which makes it edible. It also makes it smell like cleaning products. We’ll just quote Wikipedia here to drive home how depressing it is to have this as your national dish. “Those new to it may gag involuntarily on the first attempt to eat it…[they] are sometimes advised to pinch their nose while taking the first bite.”

So come to Iceland, and enjoy our culinary traditions, like rotted poison shark meat once described by Anthony Bourdain as the single most disgusting thing he has ever eaten! If it’s winter it’ll be so dark that no one can see your tears!

Puffin Heart

In Iceland, it’s considered a delicacy to eat a puffin’s heart, raw. For reference sake, this is a puffin. They take their widdle hearts and cut them raw for you and Iceland is so starved for good food that this is considered something you save for a special occasion. Just…damn it.

Súrir hrútspungar (Sour Ram’s Testicles)

*tosses hands up in the air*  *gives up*

What the actual hell?  Everything edible in Iceland is laughably terrifying.  And everything has layers of depressing horror. These are sad and scary at the same time. Does eating a sheep’s head feel pretty dour? Well let’s just toss in a superstition about deaf children. Cured shark meat sound horrendous  Don’t worry, they only cure it because it’s poison. What, you have a problem eating a ram’s balls? Don’t worry, the balls are pressed into blocks before being boiled and cured in lactic acid to give it a nice spongy texture and sour taste that reminds you that it’s three in the afternoon and pitch black outside.

So, wow. Iceland might be the saddest cuisine in the world. The saddest. Like, top spot. Anyway, don’t eat sour ram’s testicles, they sound bad. And if you must visit Iceland in winter, we guess, bring a sun lamp and a McDonald’s franchise with you if you want to maintain any sanity.

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