At the BSÍ Bus Terminal in Reykjavík, Iceland, a restaurant called Mýrin Mathús has been feeding hungry travelers since 1976. While the restaurant offers familiar dishes like burgers and BLTs, it's primarily known for its selection of traditional Icelandic dishes. And the most famous menu item? Sheep's head.
Icelandic cuisine can be unusual, to say the least, with many of the dishes dating back to times when preservation during long winters was of the utmost importance and the entirety of an animal was used to avoid wasting any possible sustenance. On the streets of Reykjavík, signs outside of restaurants advertise full course dinners of puffin and whale meat. But for those that want to try sheep's head, or svið as it's known in Icelandic, BSÍ is the place to go.
Preparing the sheep's head takes quite some time, so most restaurants in Iceland choose not to bother with it. Each head is first cut in half in order to remove the brain, which is not eaten, and the fur is burned off. The chef places the heads in a large pot and sprinkles salt on them. Water is added, and the pot is left to boil for around two and a half hours. Because the dish requires such a long time to cook, the chefs at Mýrin Mathús begin the process in the morning, anticipating how many heads will be served in a given day.
Diners at the restaurant are able to decide whether they'd like to enjoy the dish hot or cold. Most Icelandic locals prefer cold sheep's head, but tourists tend to order it hot, perhaps because it feels slightly more familiar that way. The dish is served with mashed potatoes and rutabaga, as well as much-needed instructions on how to properly consume the head. The first step? Remove the jaw. "Don't hesitate to use your hands," the instructions advise.
The instructions also include the "local secret" that the eye and the tongue are considered the best part, should someone be tempted to shy away from the more unfamiliar components.
Sindri, a chef at Mýrin Mathús, said he sees younger generations becoming less interested in traditional Icelandic foods like sheep's head. "It's mostly older people who eat it, not people my age," he said. He said the one traditional dish he won't eat is fermented shark, which has both the smell and the taste of urine. And even Anthony Bourdain agrees, calling fermented shark the worst thing he's ever eaten in an interview with Time.
But despite this resistance, svið and fermented shark are still widely consumed at the Icelandic mid-winter festival known as Þorrablót. During the festival, Icelanders celebrate with a feast consisting of dishes dating back to the Viking Age. The spread, which also is likely to include pickled ram’s testicles and congealed sheep’s blood, is not exactly pretty. But it's a way for Icelanders to come together and remember their roots.
Skál í botn! (Translation: Bottoms up!)
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