Updated: Sep 19
With such a remote location high up in the North Atlantic Ocean, Iceland is working with certain limitations when it comes to producing food. With its severe weather patterns and long winters growing produce here comes with many challenges. The cost of importing and producing fresh produce then can be quite prohibitive. Having said that these limitations lead directly to creativity. Today Icelandic cuisine is at an exciting point. Chefs are getting creative with locally sourced fresh ingredients and infusing ancient recipes and ingredients with new and innovative ideas. In Reykjavik Iceland’s capital city there are a whole host of excellent new fine dining restaurants to try. In short, now is a great time to be hungry in Iceland!
In this article, we talk you through some of the best and most interesting culinary treats that Iceland has to offer. We will look at traditional foods that give us an insight into Iceland’s history and culture. As well as some of the most commonly enjoyed snacks and the delicacies you just have to try.
Traditional dishes of Iceland
Iceland is famous for some pretty disturbing sounding dishes but many of them are seldom eaten these days. The traditional Icelandic dish of fermented shark is often cited as a staple. But in reality, relatively few people try it these days apart from a few brave tourists. If it is on your Iceland travel bucket list then sign up for a food tour and you’ll probably be encouraged to try it. Another of these ‘difficult’ morsels is Black Death (!) a bitter and fiery schnapps drink. Again, this tipple is seldom chosen by the majority of Icelandic people. Both are fun to try and the stories behind them offer an insight into what life used to be like in Iceland. So, we hear you say. What food should I try in Iceland? Well, here goes.
Fresh fish and seafood
With its lengthy coastline and the pure waters of its rivers and lakes, Iceland has an abundance of fish and seafood to enjoy. Icelanders eat a lot of fresh fish and it is of course very good for their health. Hearty fish stews are a fantastic and delicious staple of the Icelandic diet. Lobster soup is also popular, especially around the south coast of Iceland. Believe it or not, fish and chips is regularly enjoyed in Iceland too. With its prolific fishing industry Icelandic fish is nearly always fresh and delicious. Look out for the fish catch of the day on menus as this will always be fresh from the fishing boat that morning. Many restaurants will flavour fresh fish with herbs grown on the island such as Arctic thyme.
This is another traditional Icelandic dish but one that is still eaten regularly today. Harðfiskur (dried fish) is usually an air dried cod or haddock. It dates back to the days before refrigeration when Icelandic people deboned the fish and hung it up to dry. They would place it on wooden structures in the salty Atlantic winds and it would dry over a period of about a month. Today this curing process can be speeded up. The aged dried fish is cured in a similar way to cheese and is a popular and protein-rich snack. Icelandic people will snack on dried fish either as it is or slathered in a little butter.
There are upwards of 800,000 sheep grazing freely across the Iceland landscape. So it follows that lamb is another delicious staple of Icelandic cuisine. These sheep are very much free-range and are not fed on grain. Instead the sheep and lambs roam the countryside feasting on wild grasses, herbs, moss and berries. This diet infuses the meat with a deliciously sweet flavour. It is some of the best lamb in the world and considered a real delicacy. Icelandic people will often eat slow roasted lamb as a Christmas meal. The traditional way to roast lamb is in a geo-thermally heated pit where it will slowly cook over a period of many hours.
Another of the popular Icelandic dishes using lamb is lamb soup. This one is more of an everyday comfort food. It is a rich and hearty soup that can be cooked using any vegetables that you have to hand. But it usually incorporates onion, swede and potatoes. This soup is filling, warming and very much welcome on a cold wintery day in Iceland.
This is probably the most famous and widely used dairy product in Iceland. It is a cross between yogurt and soft cheese and can be used interchangeably. You might eat it for breakfast with fruit and berries or make it into a cheesecake. Skyr is made by fermenting skim milk and is similar to Greek Yogurt. In fact you will probably have seen it on the supermarket shelves if you live in the US or in the UK.
Icelandic Rye Bread
This delicious dark rye bread is really popular in Iceland. It has a cake-like consistency that comes from the way that it is baked. Traditionally rye bread is made by baking the dough in a pot buried underground near a hot spring. The bread is then cooked or steamed using geothermal energy. Rye bread is eaten often in Iceland as a side dish or a snack. It is delicious with butter or topped with smoked salmon, cured lamb, cheeses or jam.
Icelandic Hot dogs
The humble hot dog is a big deal when it comes to snacking in Iceland. You won’t be able to visit Iceland without trying one. There is a famous stall in downtown Reykjavik called Baejarins Beztu Pylsur. There are nearly always lines outside it and it was even endorsed by Bill Clinton when he visited Iceland. In every town you will find a hot dog stand and it is a really affordable and easy way of eating on a budget in Iceland.
Icelandic Ice Cream
Another really popular snack or dish in Iceland is ice cream. Even in winter Icelandic people will happily tuck into a scoop or two of this creamy treat. It comes in all sorts of flavours and with all manner of toppings. You can have it dipped in chocolate or covered in candy. Enjoy it straight after a hot spring swim or following a late night movie. Ice cream eating in Iceland is an anytime anywhere kind of pursuit.
Icelandic people in general adore licorice. What is perhaps a slightly unusual flavor for many is found all over the place in Iceland. Its most common form is in bars of chocolate-covered salty licorice. But it is also used in savory dishes with lamb and you can of course get a licorice ice cream quite easily too. Dipped in licorice powder anyone?
Baked buns and bread
Freshly baked buns are a wonderful Icelandic treat. Kleina is traditionally Icelandic and is a deep-fried doughnut covered in spiced sugar. They are very naughty. Soft cinnamon buns are also delicious especially when covered in a sweet glaze. Bakeries are a really affordable and delicious way to eat in Iceland. So they are perfect places to stock up if you are traveling in Iceland on a budget. You will need to do plenty of hiking to counteract the calories though!