Iceland is a wonderful country to visit. A land of fire and ice, hot springs, incredible landscapes and harsh winters. You’ll also find many exciting things to eat in Iceland, with traditional dishes and modern twists to tease your taste buds.
I believe you can learn a lot about a country, its people and its geography through the food that’s eaten there. The combination of flavours, the presentation and the cooking methods used all contribute to build a picture of the country’s food culture and how it came about.
Getting to know a country’s cuisine and the excitement of discovering new flavours is all part of the journey, and Icelandic food is no exception.
The History of Icelandic Food
The food in Iceland can trace its origins to neighbouring Nordic countries like Denmark and Norway. This island nation was settled in the 9th century, and many traditional foods arrived with those first settlers. After the small ice age of the 14th century, the Icelandic people became heavily reliant on grains and cereals, while subsistence farming continued until the turn of the 19th century.
In the late 1800s, Danish culture became more influential in Iceland. This was reflected in the local cuisine, with many aspects of Danish food cropping up in Icelandic recipes. This was followed by a boom in Iceland’s fishing industry in the early 1900s, which led to fish becoming a staple ingredient on many Icelanders’ tables.
So, what to eat in Iceland today? Icelandic food is a mix of preserved and fresh foods, reflecting Icelandic history as well as more modern tastes. Salted meat has become rarer in recent years, while fish is still the primary food source in Iceland.
Now that Iceland’s capital Reykjavik and the beautiful Blue Lagoon are popular travel destinations, more and more people are visiting flying into Reykjavik. One of the best ways to try traditional Icelandic foods is by taking a Reykjavik food tour. Alternatively, you can simply get out there and try the foods yourself!
I’d heard some pretty gruesome tales of what to expect, so my taste buds and I arrived in Reykjavik with more than a little trepidation about the food I’d find on my plate. But I’m happy to say I didn’t need the stash of chocolate Hobnobs I’d secreted in my case because Iceland served up some fabulous local food.
Here’s how I ate my way around Iceland…
What to eat in Iceland
So, what to eat in Iceland? Some of the most popular Icelandic foods include lamb, skyr, potatoes and fish – lots of fish. Iceland sits surrounded by chilly North Atlantic waters filled with cod, haddock, herring, halibut, skate and lobster, while the rivers and lakes are rich with Arctic char and salmon.
The fresh fish you’ll find on your plate in the evening was probably caught that morning. Huge geothermal heated greenhouses produce fresh vegetables, and the country’s environmental awareness means that the meat, fish and seafood are some of Europe’s healthiest.
Some traditional Icelandic dishes are not for the faint-hearted – vegetarians look away now. It’s not a problem because the local restaurants also serve many European dishes and vegetarians and vegans are well catered for. Here’s what modern and traditional Icelandic cuisine brings to the table…
The lamb I ate in Iceland was beautiful. In fact, I’d say it was the best I’ve ever tasted! The fillet of lamb served with root vegetables, parsnip and red wine sauce was delicious, melt-in-the-mouth tender and full of flavour. I’m salivating just thinking about it again.
Icelandic sheep roam freely in the highlands, grazing on grass, plants and wild herbs. This idyllic life results in lean and tender meat, full of flavour and free from hormones or pesticides. And it’s good to know they had a bit of lamby happiness before, well, you know…
Svið, Sheep’s Head In Iceland
Here’s the heads up on Svið. A sheep’s head is first singed to remove the wool, then cut in half, de-brained and boiled. Once cooked, it is served with mashed root veg, and the whole lot is devoured, including the ears, eyes and tongue.
I’d have tried a bite or two if the opportunity had arisen. Fortunately, it didn’t – ditto the ram’s testicles pressed into cakes and pickled. But these aren’t just quirky snacks; this is a traditional Icelandic food. The way the whole of the lamb is used and preserved was born from the need to survive long, harsh winters in Iceland.
Pylsur, Icelandic hot dogs
I wasn’t going to leave Reykjavík without sampling another popular food: their famous hot dogs. Bæjarins beztu pylsur (the best hot dog in town) has served hot dogs since 1937 from a hut opposite the harbour in downtown Reykjavík.
Their fare differs from your average dog in that they are made with lamb as well as pork and beef, giving them a slightly meatier flavour and firmer texture.
The best way to eat this popular fast food is ‘eina með öllu’, which means with everything. Your dog is loaded up with both crispy deep-fried and raw onions, a sweet brown mustard called ‘pylsusinnep’ and tomato ketchup. It’s then finished with a remoulade of finely chopped gherkins and capers mixed with mayonnaise.
This combination adds up to a whole lot of flavour. I’m not a big fan of hot dogs, but I had to try one to see if these really are the best hot dogs in the world.
Verdict: it’s probably true because there was a queue of people every time I passed that hut. Personally, I thought they were okay and they’re not expensive so it’s a good cheap option for lunch on the go.
A Reykjavik food tour is one of the best ways to try traditional Icelandic foods.
Fish dishes in Iceland
The fish you’ll be eating in Iceland meals is plentiful, fresh and delicious due to the abundant waters surrounding it. The Icelandic fishing grounds are undoubtedly some of the purest in the world, which is reflected in the high quality of fish in Iceland.
One of my favourite Icelandic fish dishes is deep-fried crispy cod balls. After biting through the crisp, light batter, the succulent white cod within provides a wonderful contrast.
Other favourites were healthier foods like the open sandwiches of shrimp on rye bread with a twist of lemon, meaty monkfish and delicately smoked trout and Atlantic salmon. All locally sourced and beautifully cooked.
Hakarl, Fermented Shark
Iceland’s fishy dark side comes in the form of cured and fermented shark meat. The abundant Greenland shark is poisonous because of high levels of urea present in the flesh, which makes it smell like ammonia.
The Icelandic people have come up with an ingenious way of making it edible, although not necessarily palatable, and only slightly poisonous. So that’s nice.
The shark meat is cured by burying it in sand for 6-12 weeks before hanging it to dry and ferment for four to five months. After this fermentation process, the shark flesh is called Hákarl and is safe to eat. Oh, joy…
A Reykjavik food walk is one of the best ways to try traditional Icelandic foods.
Brennivin, aka Black Death
The traditional way to serve Hákarl is to cut it into small cubes, which are washed down with a fiery shot of Brennivín, Icelandic schnapps. Also known as Black Death, Brennivin is made from fermented potatoes and caraway seeds. Did I try it? Yes, but I skipped the fermented shark.
Alcohol in Iceland
Talking of alcohol, one of the top four lagers in Iceland is Gull, made with Icelandic barley and water. Gull is sold in most bars and every state alcohol shop in Iceland.
Beer was banned in Iceland from 1915 until 1st March 1989, so Bjórdagurinn, or beer day, is now celebrated on 1st March every year. Gull is best served ice cold!
Alcohol is expensive in Iceland, so you might like to pick up some duty-free from your departure airport to enjoy on your visit to Iceland.
Check out this Beer and Booze Tour in Reykjavik.
Thunder Bread, aka Icelandic Rye Bread
Icelandic rye bread, or Hverabrauð, is baked overnight in thermal springs using geothermal energy. This delicious traditional rye bread is served in a variety of ways, topped with smoked fish, cream cheese or even just butter.
If you’d like to learn more about how Icelandic rye bread is made, read my post Thunderbread, a geothermal bake off in Iceland, where I share a recipe for making your own rugbrauð.
Or, visit the geothermal bakery at Laugarvatn Fontana and sample the delicious bread baked on site.
Next let me introduce you to skyr, which is Iceland’s answer to Greek yoghurt. Technically skyr is a soft cheese made from thick milk curds which taste like a mix of yoghurt and crème fraîche. It’s fab served with blueberries, muesli and dehydrated strawberries, which made it a good choice for breakfast during my stay in Iceland.
But best of all, this superfood is high in protein, calcium-rich and low in carbs and fat, so it’s actually good for you. Most UK supermarkets now sell skyr, so this is a taste of Iceland food that you can try at home!
A Reykjavik food tour is one of the best ways to try traditional Icelandic foods
Plokkfiskur, aka Icelandic fish stew
Plokkfiskur is a traditional Icelandic fish stew made from fish, potatoes and onion with a thick and creamy bechamel sauce. In fact, plokkfiskur is so thick and creamy that you can either eat it from a bowl or spread it on top of thin slices of rúgbrauð (Icelandic rye bread).
This is the sort of comfort food that sticks to your ribs and keeps you warm on a freezing cold day. Plokkfiskur began life as a way to bulk out expensive fish with cheaper potatoes and is now a popular dish with both tourists and locals.
A Reykjavik food tour is one of the best ways to try traditional Icelandic foods
Icelandic Ice Cream
You wouldn’t think that ice cream would be a thing in Iceland given that there’s snow and ice just about everywhere. Well, the Icelandics love their ice cream. I guess you can’t go far wrong with a sweet treat even in the coldest of climates.
You’ll find an ice cream shop around every corner in Reykjavik but we tried this sublime volcano themed ice cream desert at Lava Restaurant at the Blue Lagoon and it was excellent. I’d go back to Iceland just for the ice cream.
Harðfiskur, aka Fish Jerky
Dried fish has been a staple part of traditional Icelandic dishes for hundreds of years. Locally caught cod, haddock and wolffish were air dried in the cold winds coming off the North Atlantic Ocean. As it dried, the bacteria in the fish cured the flesh, turning it hard and yellow. Nowadays, it’s dried using machinery.
To make the hard fish edible, it first has to be pounded with a meat mallet. This tenderises the flesh and turns it into harðfiskur, the fish jerky that is a popular part of the Icelandic diet. If you want to try harðfiskur for yourself, you can buy it at most grocery stores in Iceland.
Hangikjöt, aka Icelandic smoked lamb
And finally Hangikjöt, or ‘hung meat’, which forms the centrepiece of every traditional Icelandic Christmas time. It dates back to the early days of settlement in Iceland when Vikings would preserve meat by hanging it in a smokehouse. Trees are few and far between in Iceland, so the cured meat is smoked with either birch wood or sheep dung.
Hangikjöt is a savoury smoked lamb that can be served raw as an appetiser, in slices like prosciutto. It can also be cooked and served with vegetables, potatoes in bechamel sauce and Iceland’s traditional Christmas bread, laufabrauð.
That’s just a small taste of some of the food I sampled in Iceland. Icelandic food is fresh, exciting and absolutely delicious.
True, some food in Iceland may not appeal to everyone, but you’ll only know for sure by trying it. Given a chance, I’d have had a small taste of everything I’ve told you about here – maybe not the fermented shark.
Have you tried Icelandic food? Tell us your recommendation of what to eat in Iceland in the comments below.