When you think of Iceland what comes to mind? Unparalleled landscapes, glaciers and that beautiful blue lagoon, perhaps, but likely not food. Iceland just isn’t known for its cuisine the way so many other countries are, but it should be because Iceland has a unique food scene of its own that encompasses both traditional fare as well as more contemporary dishes. Curious to find out more about what types of food you might find in Iceland? We’ve put together a guide to give you a good idea of what to expect.
Eating in Iceland: An overview
Iceland has a long history of a diet full of fish, lamb and other meats thanks to long, cold winters that meant a serious lack of fresh produce. Icelanders also traditionally relied on a lot of preserved foods such as dried cod, haddock and smoked lamb, much of which is still eaten today.
Seafood in Iceland is abundant and a large part of the daily diet. Popular items caught at sea include cod, char, salmon, trout, lobster, herring and skate. Another staple in the Icelandic diet is lamb, which is known as some of the best in the world thanks to the free-roaming and free-grazing sheep it comes from. They roam the mountains and live mostly off grass and other greenery making for very tender meat. In addition to meat, Iceland is also known for their cheese production and consumption.
Iceland is also known for having some of the best quality meats and fish around. This is thanks to an emphasis on using what’s local as well as the high quality of the meat, fish and dairy products. Pesticides, herbicides and hormones are seldom used, which further contributes to the quality of the food in Iceland.
Eating in Iceland: Traditional dishes
In terms of specific traditional and staple dishes, some of which are still eaten regularly while others are usually eaten during special occasions only, there are several worth mentioning.
Hákarl: Shark (usually Greenland shark) that is fermented for several months to break down the toxins in the flesh. It’s a traditional dish, but the very strong taste is off-putting for many, even some Icelanders. Even well-known fearless eater Anthony Bordain once declared this dish the worst thing he’s ever eaten. Dive in at your own risk.
Sild: Pickled herrings, often eaten at breakfast.
Hangikjöt: Hung, smoked lamb that is often used in sandwiches and eaten during the holidays.
Svið: De-brained, boiled and singed sheep’s heads usually served with mashed potato and mashed turnip. This includes the tongue, eyes and ears, so squeamish eaters beware.
Súrsaðir hrútspungar: Pickled ram’s testicles (yes, you read that right).
Harðfiskur: Fish jerky, mostly eaten as a snack.
Eating in Iceland: Local favorites not to miss
You can’t visit Iceland without coming across (and likely eating) Skyr, a very popular yogurt-like product made from pasteurized skim milk and bacterial cultures. It’s similar to yogurt, but it’s actually a soft cheese that can be eaten as a snack, as a dessert with sweet toppings, in smoothies or for breakfast. It’s rich and creamy, but doesn’t contain fat on its own.
You’ll also likely come across the pylsur in Iceland, which is their version of the humble hot dog. It looks like a hot dog, but it’s made with lamb in addition to pork and beef. It’s also void of a lot of the fillers you might find in hot dogs elsewhere. An important thing to note about pylsur is that toppings are fairly simple and ordering one “eina með öllu” means you asked for it with “everything”. This consists of ketchup, raw onions, fried onions, a sweet brown mustard and a creamy, tangy remoulade.
Pönnukökur is also worth trying. This thin Icelandic pancake looks more like a French crepe than a traditional pancake. Light texture and flavor, pönnukökur are usually served with jam or whipped cream.
Fancy a drink? If you need a pick-me-up, coffee is very popular in Iceland and you won’t have to look long to find a cup. Kaffitar is a popular coffee chain in Reykjavik. If you’re looking for something stronger, the local spirit is called brennivín and it’s distilled from potatoes. The strong mix is flavored with caraway seeds and packs quite the punch – so drink wisely (or at least slowly). The other name for brennivín is “black death” due to its strength.
Eating in Iceland: Dining out
When eating out in Iceland you’ll find a lot more choice in Reykjavik and other cities than you will in small towns or more off the beaten track areas. Cities will have many different cuisines in addition to local fare and in Reykjavik, in particular, the food scene is starting to heat up. Some restaurants to try in the capital include Dill, a modern take on Nordic cuisine; Icelandic Fish and Chips, where you can try some of that fresh fish Iceland is known for; Lækjarbrekka, which serves traditional Icelandic cuisine; and Roadhouse if you’re craving a taste of home in the form of a great burger.
Keep in mind that eating out in Iceland can be expensive. To save money it can be a good idea to do some self-catering. Choose a place to stay with a guest kitchen.
Kolaportið flea market in Reykjavik is a good place to go to pick up or browse some local food specialities.
Featured image: Sarah_Ackerman