Harðfiskur – Icelandic hard (dried) fish

Continuing with the Þorri theme, here is the single most popular food you will find on the Þorri buffet. It is a popular snack in Iceland, and many people take some with them when they go abroad on holiday.

Of the traditional Icelandic foods, harðfiskur and skyr are probably the two which most appeal to foreigners. I have received several e-mails from people asking how to make harðfiskur or where to buy it abroad, and so I decided it was time to give a description of how it's made.

Many kinds of fish dry well, but traditionally it is mostly cod, haddock and ocean catfish (wolf-fish) that are dried. Flounder also makes excellent harðfiskur, and in some areas of Iceland people also dry arctic char. 

Drying haddock, cod and flounder:
Wash the fish and scrape off the slime. Gut the fish and remove the head. Haddock and cod can either be butterflied or filleted before drying. Flounder is filleted. If you butterfly the fish, you must take care to keep the fish spread open while it is drying. To hang, cut a small slit through the flesh and skin of the tail end of the fillet, and thread a wooden dowel or a piece of string through it. The fish may be dipped briefly in brine before drying (recommended for flavour and prevention of spoilage during the drying process). Hang out to dry. To properly dry the fish, it should be done outside, in fairly cool (below 10 °C) and dry weather. The fish needs air movement to dry properly, and if it is windy, the wind will keep flies off the fish. Drying time depends on wind, air temperature and humidity.

Butterflied, dried cod's heads.
When the fish is dry and papery to the touch, it should be ready for eating. Test it by breaking the thickest part of it, and if it breaks easily and is dry all the way through, you can eat it. The fish should now be beaten with a small mallet, a meat hammer or a rolling pin, until it flakes easily and can be torn apart with the hands. Eat it either as it is, or spread with butter.

Drying catfish/wolf-fish:
Ocean catfish (also known as wolf-fish), is fattier than cod or haddock, and needs to be dried faster to avoid spoilage. Fillet the fish and cut the fillet into two or four strips lengthwise, depending on size. Don't separate each two strips completely, but leave about an inch of the skin uncut. Cut the flesh into 1 1/2 cm. wide strips, taking care not to cut through the skin. Now you have what is known as riklingur in Icelandic. Hang on a wooden dowel and put out to dry. When it is dry, the riklingur can easily be cut into pieces with a pair of scissors, and the flesh can be easily torn from the skin. It is not necessary to beat this fish, unless it is so hard you worry about breaking your teeth on it!

Fish that is dried whole with only the head and guts removed is called skreið (stockfish in English). It dries more slowly and will therefore have a stronger flavour, and it needs to be beaten much more before it is soft enough to eat. Skreið is a popular commodity in some African countries, where it is reconstituted and used in all kinds of dishes.

Mass produced harðfiskur is made by fan or oven drying. It dries faster than wind-dried harðfiskur, and has less flavour.

There is a type of semi-dried fish called siginn fiskur, that has been allowed to hang for a few days until it has dried a bit and the flesh is firm like that of salt fish. It has a strong flavour and some would say it is spoiled, but it is still safe to eat. It is not nearly as pungent as skate, the traditional food eaten two days before Christmas, and which has been allowed to go well and truly rotten (more on that later, or check out the mother site if you can’t wait to read about it.

Siginn fiskur, usually haddock or cod, is traditionally served with plain boiled potatoes and white (béchamel) sauce.


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Ludvik Kaaber said...

Just want to venture the comment that my father, who athough a Reykjavík boy was at Skógar near (the infamous) "Eyjafjallajökull" in 1918 at the age of 9, told me that dried cod heads were then used as candy for children. Sugar or chocolate-based candies had apparently not made a breakthrough in Iceland in those days. I am not surprised, knowing that the heads of various animals (e.g. sheep and swine) are delicacies in many cultures for the rich varieties of meat and fat they contain.

As far as I know dried fish is by no means an Icelandic specialty - how could it be? Russians living near the ocean dry fish over all their eleven hours of the sun's circuit. If Alaskans and Canadians don't do that too, they are not the people I think they are. I happen to know that Koreans also eat dried fish ccn gusto, although, in my opinion, they should not spice it with anise.

Well processed dried catfish is a good proof of the Lord's love for mankind, I say.

Finally, as regards "siginn fiskur", this is an example of autolysis, i.e. decomposition that is not due to bacterial action. It makes the taste very distinctive, and quite good. I am used to eat it as described in the article, but with the addition of boiled rutabaga. Rutabaga feature prominently in many "traditional" Icelandic disthes (i.e. emulating the period from say mid 19th Century to WWII or thereabout.