Sure, the Blue Lagoon is the most visited place in Iceland. Strokkur at the Geysir site spews steaming sulphur-smelling water into the air every few minutes. And, yes, there are many, many whales to watch off the coast. But speak to people on the street and you’ll find that there is another, much cheaper “must-see” on any person’s list in this country: the Icelandic pylsa (hot dog). Its praises are sung in nearly every guidebook and it is the mainstay of the budget traveller in this expensive land. Read on and you’ll find out everything you need to know about this institution.
The Icelandic pylsa (it’s unique enough to be referred to by its Icelandic name, plus it makes this article seem fancier) is according to locals the best in the world. In Iceland, the dogs are not just made from pork and beef, but also lamb, which is what makes them so delicious. SS, largest producer of hot dogs in the country, will not identify specifically what body parts go into their creations and I do not want to speculate. Besides, like all fast food, the pylsa should not be overly dissected. The best part of the pylsa is the toppings, which are always the same (although you may pick and choose): raw onion, crispy fried onions, ketchup, spicy mustard and remoulade (no one is entirely sure what this is but it tastes good).
One of the reasons for the enduring popularity of the pylsa is that it is an appropriate meal or snack for almost any occasion. With the possible exception of wedding receptions or fermingardagur (an Icelandic institution in its own right), it is never a bad time to ask for a hot dog. It is the daddy of the late night snack, in a country with 24-hour sunlight; the perfect picky child food in a country full of children.
At the risk of sounding like a pop psychologist, buying an Icelandic hot dog also allows people to express their individuality. This can be a big issue. The adventurous can order extra fried onions. Purists just get the ketchup. Some swear by the “eina með öllu” (“one with everything”). Apparently those strange people from Akureyri in the north put ALL of their toppings (rather than the usual two) on the bottom of the bun under the dog itself. I’m sure that there is an undergraduate psychology thesis floating around somewhere on pylsa toppings and what they say about a person’s mental well-being.
What is it that makes the pylsa so famous? I spent some time loitering outside the Bæjarins Beztu pylsa stand (see next box) to find out what people thought. According to the members of the soon-to-be-famous band Man Behind the Wheel (now that they are getting this free plug in The Grapevine), it’s because they are “sweaty”. The band is quick to point out, though, that one should not have really high hopes of perfection because, like Eurovision and men’s handball, things with expectations in Iceland never quite live up to them. “They almost do with the pylsa, though.” Six-year old step-siblings Haukur and Rafael also have high praise for Bæjarins Beztu – but only if you order them with just ketchup. And a visitor from Atlanta in the US proclaimed that it was the higher quality of meat and the “real crispy crunch” of the onions that put the pylsa at the top of his sausage list.
The innocent pylsa has not been without its share of controversy over the years. Some minor scuffles have occurred in academic circles over the spelling of the word “pylsa”. Whether it should have a “y” or a “u” has occupied far more time and tax money than should be mentioned. People might also debate the best brand of hot dog, but with 80% market share, SS seems to be winning hands down. One wonders if this success is due in part to their very famous slogan: “Íslendingar borða SS pylsur” – “Icelanders eat SS pylsur” – and whether people have caught on to the faintly nationalist tones behind it. Yes, the pylsa can even be political.
When it comes to politics, a name frequently associated with the pylsa is Guðni Ágústsson, the Minister of Agriculture. In November 2004, he took the first bite of the 11.9 metre, world record-setting longest hot dog and bun ever created. I tried to contact Guðni to ask him about his passion for the pylsa, but my emails went unanswered, so I am left to conclude that Guðni finally succumbed to his weakness and lies somewhere remote, drowning in a giant vat of remoulade and mustard.
In the end, I can only suggest you try a pylsa yourself. If Metallica, Bill Clinton and 99% of Icelanders love them, then so will you (with the possible exception of vegetarians). Cheap happiness in a bun. What more could you ask for?
Where to buy the best
Bæjarins Beztu: Hands down the most famous of all hot dog stands, Bill Clinton ate here and then had heart bypass surgery a few weeks later. Rumour has it these pylsur are the best because they are cooked in beer, but the staff will neither confirm nor deny this. It’s downtown near the harbour and has been open since 1937.
If you want to try the underdog
(pardon the pun):
Shell station on Bústaðavegur (near the Pearl): Slightly more ambitious versions, with bacon and exotic toppings like shrimp or potato salad available. You can also buy special “spicy” hot dogs.
Local stands in small towns around the country: Yes, Bæjarins Beztu is so good that I haven’t even bothered to list all the other places you can find. Just take a look around yourself. They’re everywhere.
Buy Your Own: All the grocery stores sell hot dogs so you can make them at home. SS is the most popular brand, but there are others.
Hot Dog Couple Drawings from the SS website, www.SS.is