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Iceland, I Love You—But Your Grocery Stores Are Weird

I came to Iceland expecting animals heads, and I found animals heads. But is that prune-flavored milk I see sitting on the shelf? And why is all of the candy overwhelmingly infused with licorice? Well, at least your skyr is delicious.
Hilary Pollack
Los Angeles, US
Photos by Hilary Pollack.

I should probably apologize in advance to anyone from Iceland who might read this. Iceland is one of the most naturally gorgeous places on the entire Earth. Its pastoral beauty could make even the most calloused sociopath weep, and no one in his or her right mind would refute its cultural richness. I am certainly not trying to do it any offense by expressing my confusion towards its cuisine.

But the food there really weirded me out.


It wouldn't be fair to say that Iceland is known for its food abroad, but it might be fair to say that Iceland's food is "known." Not in the same way that Italy's is, or San Francisco's, or even Texas for its regional mastery of barbecue. Iceland's food is notorious because it is often considered by outsiders (the non-Nordic, generally) to be sort of gross. The nation is largely devoid of food exports, as not many crops like to grow glacier-side with almost no sunshine for several months a year. There's also an affinity, having trickled down from the Vikings, for pungent flavors ("acquired tastes," shall we say) ill-suited for the American palate. Even the seemingly unshakable Anthony Bourdain once declared hákarl—Iceland's traditional dish of months-old fermented shark carcass—to be "the single worst, most disgusting and terrible-tasting thing" that he had ever put in his mouth. And that's coming from a man who has eaten warthog rectum, a seal's eyeball, and the still-beating heart of a cobra.


Magically calorie-free bacon and chocolate dips.

Whale meat is another notable local delicacy—although roughly 40 percent of it is consumed by tourists. I didn't have a chance to try it, but it has been described to me as "scary but delicious," and likened to "the unsettling feeling of eating a friend."

It might not be for everyone, but the cuisine is anything but dull. When I arrived in Iceland last week at Ásbrú, the former NATO base in Keflavik, there were few nearby restaurant options. I'd heard rumors of rotten shark popsicles and sheeps' head quesadillas, and I was not mentally prepared to figure out what the hell to eat. And so, not knowing a single word of the native tongue besides takk ("thank you"), I confronted the fascinating and daunting task of grocery shopping in Iceland.


The first problem: I was warned that Iceland is very expensive. (Although it turned out to be a gross exaggeration, a coworker had claimed that a cheap beer there would cost $14. In reality, it was more like $7, which is only slightly more than what you'd pay in New York.) I'm a poor mathematician, and 1,000 Icelandic krona is equivalent to a little bit less than nine American dollars. As a result, my pervasive feeling throughout the trip was that I was indiscriminately throwing around "thousands of somethings."


Cured salmon of unknown quality and varying price tags.

One grocery store, Nettó, looked and felt like any other smallish grocer that you might walk into in a mid-sized suburban town in the States. I admired a rack of packaged cured salmon and decided that it seemed like a safe choice for consumption. But then it came time to pick one of the varieties, and there were about a half a dozen different types under wildly fluctuating prices. Although all of the portions looked similar, two of them were almost 5,000 krona (roughly $40?!), one was about 2,600 krona ($22), and an errant package was 598 krona ($5.22). I was too scared to get the cheapest one because nothing in this world is free, and if another brand of the same thing costs literally eight times as much, I would assume that there's a reason why. So it was settled: not buying any salmon.

I thought it wise to get some spreads to keep around for snacking, but when I got to the refrigerated section, I noticed that many of the packages said "skinku" on them. I tried to search for the word on my phone, but nothing relevant came up. I followed up with an image search of "skinku Iceland," and the photo results were a bunch of DeviantArt drawings and a single picture of a musty-looking sheep's head on a plate. I did not buy the spread.


Well, this is some odd-looking juice.

Nearby, I found an entire shelf dedicated to "calorie-free" dips made by a supposedly American brand called Walden Farms, of which I have never heard in my life. There were about 30 different kinds of ranch dressing, chocolate sauce, peanut butter, dips, and flavored mayonnaises that purport to have "no calories, fat, carbs, gluten, or sugars of any kind," which is absolutely baffling. I can understand the scientific logistics behind low-fat, sugar-free, or gluten-free products, but my brain refuses to understand how a Cinnamon-Raisin Peanut Spread can have no calories if it contains any actual raisins or peanuts. Purely out of irrepressible curiosity, I bought the French onion dip and the bacon dip. Later, my friends and I sampled both while tequila-drunk and concluded that they were completely inedible, with the French onion dip tasting identical to the smell of latex paint.

In the adjoining beverage aisle, I gazed at some boxes of a juice called Brazzi. On the front was a burly, Italian-looking guy with a wire-thin mustache, wearing a do-rag with goggles over it and what appears to be some football equipment, and he is flanked by a cheery girl in a pink wig. Only later did I realize that this was the cast of the Icelandic-British-American children's show Lazy Town, making the juice no less strange. Brazzi might actually appear less weird to foreigners than something like Kool-Aid, which is represented by an anthropomorphized pitcher who sometimes wears Hawaiian shirts and has a face that looks like it was drawn on with a Sharpie.


Oh. Prune milk. Who doesn't want prune milk?

Also: milk. Iceland has so many milks! At least, I think they're milks. Although every single person in Iceland seemed to speak impeccable English and was unfailingly friendly, I was too meek to ask. There was blueberry milk, and elderberry milk, and what appeared to be prune milk. Below was a massive breadth of flavors of skyr, a kind of strained yogurt that is actually fantastic. A banana split-flavored cup from a gas station was the first thing I ate on arrival, and it tasted like room-temperature frozen yogurt, creamy and sweet and tangy all at once. Skyr is one of Iceland's oldest foods, having been consumed on the island for over a thousand years, and continues to be a staple today. It makes me want to throw an entire Safeway aisle of Chobani into a volcano.

In the frozen section, I came face-to-face with some animal heads immediately, which felt like seeing a local celebrity. Piles of big ol' heads with little teeth poking out from beneath their skinned lips. At first I assumed that they were sheeps' heads, but the snouts seemed too pointy compared to the relatively rounded face of the typical sheep. I stared at them for several minutes trying to deduce what they looked like with skin and fur, and eventually felt confident that they were not sheep.


I thought that, at the very least, candy would be safe. Candy is candy, right? Wrong! Oh, so wrong. I bought three chocolate bars, deciding to sample each since I am essentially a greedy child, and immediately discovered that all three were actually chocolate-covered black licorice. The wrappers looked completely different and were made by different companies, but the Icelandic desire to contaminate everything with fucking licorice flavor is so strong that it penetrated each and every candy in sight. Even worse, the black licorice there isn't the gentle flavor found in American jelly beans; it is an aggressive strain of salmiakki, a term for salted licorice flavored with ammonium chloride, for Christ's sake. If there's anyone that you truly hate in this world, I recommend buying them a bag of salmiakki candies. Dracula Megas are a good choice, since they actually have a filling of what seems to be pure ammonium chloride powder, but I can also vouch for the efficacy of Haribo's salted pretzel-flavored gummies.

I left with some rice cakes, a Scottish brand of vegan cheese called Sheese, a pizza that was sitting unrefrigerated in the pastries section, and four clementines (two ended up being black and rotten inside). Despite all of that, I nearly had to be dragged out of that grocery store. It was a weird and wonderfully ugly world in there.