Iceland is world-famous for its incredible, otherworldly landscape. The Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) illuminates diverse geological features, creating second-to-none photo opportunities and inspiring travelers worldwide. Vast national parks and postcard-worthy villages dot the rugged coastline. Adventure seekers and weekend warriors unwind together in the turquoise waters of natural hot springs.
It’s no surprise that Iceland has emerged as one of the world’s most revered vacation destinations. But while Iceland is known for many things, it is not widely known for its cuisine. Due to its geographical isolation, food in Iceland has evolved to showcase incredibly fresh local ingredients and the resourcefulness of Icelandic chefs. When traveling to Iceland, these are some of the things you absolutely must try.
Skyr is a cultured dairy product, similar in consistency to yogurt but actually made out of cheese. It has been consumed in Iceland for 1,000 years. In general, Icelandic people eat a lot of dairy—roughly 100 gallons per person, per year—and Skyr undoubtedly makes up a great deal of this amount. It is usually served with milk and a sweet topping like berries or other fruit. It’s low in fat and high in protein. While it is most commonly served for breakfast, there really isn’t a wrong time to eat skyr. It can easily be found in all Icelandic grocery stores.
Whether roasted or made into a hearty stew, lamb and sheep are the most popular meats in Iceland. The domestic sheep is the most abundant farm animal, so its meat is more readily available than beef. Icelandic lamb is incredibly tender, and locals eat it for both special occasions and everyday meals.
Slow-roasted is the preferred cooking method, but lamb also often features in a simple stew of broth and potatoes. Those seeking a more daring Icelandic culinary adventure should try smoked sheep’s head, or “svio,” with mashed potatoes and turnips. This is a specialty at the Fljott og Gott restaurant, conveniently located in the main Reykjavik bus terminal.
While we’re on the topic of seafood, we might as well get this notorious dish out of the way. Fermented shark, or hakarl, might possibly belong on a “do not try” list, but it is still the national dish of Iceland. While not widely consumed by locals, it is just one of those things you need to taste in order to proclaim that you experienced Iceland to the fullest.
Hakarl is made by fermenting and drying the meat of a Greeland shark or a sleeper shark for months. It has a strong smell of ammonia, but the taste is milder than the smell, albeit still a bit fishy. Luckily, it is most commonly served with a shot of a local spirit known as brennivin. You might need a few more to recover from the ordeal.
Hot Spring Rye Bread
Dark rye bread and butter is served with many meals in Iceland. Of course, this popular Nordic bread can be baked in a normal oven, but traditionally, Icelandic people bury it near a natural hot spring to bake. Icelandic rye bread is sweet and can be purchased in most grocery stores throughout the country. It pairs well with garlic.
A hot dog might not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about food in Iceland, but a small hot dog stand in Reykjavik is actually the country’s most popular “restaurant”. Baejarins Beztu Pylsur, meaning “the town’s best sausages”, has served iconic lamb and pork hot dogs since 1937. Order one with the works, which simply includes ketchup, sweet mustard, raw onions, deep-fried onions, and a special remoulade.
A national dish of the Westman Islands, Puffin, like hakarl, is not widely consumed, yet it is often associated with Icelandic cuisine. For preparation, this seabird is usually smoked or boiled in milk, in order to remove excess oil. It is regarded as a delicacy and is on menus throughout the country. If you’re wondering, puffin does not taste like common poultry, such as chicken. It has a consistency closer to beef and a distinct taste of seafood.
Fish stew, or plokkfiskur, is a traditional Icelandic dish usually made from boiled cod or haddock mashed together with a white sauce, onions, and potatoes. The fish consumed on this island nation is always fresh, and this popular stew is no exception. To try this dish, visit either the Saegreifinn restaurant or the Fish and More restaurant, which are both located in Reykjavik. Fish stew is generally served with traditional rye bread and butter.
Iceland has a very pronounced “coffee culture”. Icelandic people drink a lot of coffee. In fact, they are actually the fourth-largest consumers of coffee per capita in the world. Local coffee shops and cafés are found on most street corners, and due to this competition, the coffee in Iceland is incredible. The latté is the most popular coffee beverage, but espresso, cappuccino, and plain ol’ black coffee are also high on the list. Some coffee shops in Iceland even offer free refills!
Brennivin is a local Icelandic spirit similar to unsweetened schnapps. It is widely considered to be the country’s national alcoholic beverage. It has a taste comparable to vodka and is the quintessential celebration or special occasion shot. It is also the drink of the mid-winter Porrablot festival and usually accompanies bites of hakarl.
By law, beverages in Iceland could only contain up to 2.25-percent alcohol until 1989. Because of this, light beer became a popular beverage choice. While prohibition in Iceland no longer exists, stronger beer is still hard to find in many grocery stores. Be prepared to drink a milder version of beer. Then again, I’m sure it pairs well with brennivin.
Instead of focusing on diversity and relying on importing food for meals, Iceland has made use of a handful of perfectly fresh, local ingredients to create incredible dishes. From recently caught seafood to fall-of-the-bone lamb, the food in Iceland does not disappoint. Venture away from your comfort zone, and try these traditional Icelandic dishes on your next trip to the “Land of Fire and Ice”.
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