Published June 30, 2016
“What’s that stuff wrapped in plastic?” asked my friend visiting from Canada as we wandered around Bónus. “Is it fish?” I muttered something vague in response, about dried fish, about Icelanders loving the stuff, about photos I had seen of fish hanging from wooden beams set against an ocean backdrop. I hadn’t yet tried harðfiskur, and I wasn’t about to proceed without the guidance of someone much more well-versed in the ways of Icelandic cuisine than me.
The next day, half the office was crowded into the kitchen of Grapevine headquarters, passing around a bag of harðfiskur. Debates ensued over whether or not it was imperative to eat the dried fish with cold butter, room-temperature butter, or if butter was even necessary at all. (The consensus was eventually in favour of cold butter.) “It’s like eating wood,” said one of my fellow interns. I compared the texture to that of a carpet, or a tough woolen rug.
Harðfiskur has been a staple in Icelandic diets for centuries. It’s made by drying fish, most often cod, but also haddock and wolffish, in the cold North Atlantic air until it becomes cured by bacteria, similar to the process of maturing cheese. Once it’s dried, the fish turns hard and yellow, and isn’t really edible until it’s pounded by a meat mallet, turning it into the softer harðfiskur that Icelanders know and love. All over the island you’ll see harðfiskur hanging to dry. Up close, the process looks more like a crime scene than anything else, with fish heads pointed to the heavens and the stench of rot in the air. But you needn’t venture far from Reykjavík to taste harðfiskur yourself—you’ll find it at nearly every grocery store.
In the end, though, like most things in this country, the harðfiskur eventually won me over. The taste is comparable to other dried meats, and you could probably get away with describing harðfiskur as “fish jerky.” Once it’s slathered with butter, it’s hard not to keep going back for more. The only reason you won’t go through an entire bag in one sitting is that your jaw will be sore after a few pieces thanks to all the chewing it takes to break through the woody texture. Athletic types will also be happy to hear that harðfiskur is, like, the energy food, even more so than that liquorice Alexander the Great fed his troops (see last week’s candy column for more info). Good harðfiskur is up to 80% protein, meaning it will keep you going through even the toughest hikes and glacier-crossings that this island has to offer.
Bonus points for feeling like a real badass as you gnaw on a dried fish fillet atop an Icelandic mountain peak. Extra bonus points for being able to use harðfiskur as a bat to fight off drunken revellers after djammið on a Reykjavík Saturday night.