Classic Food, Done Right
A windswept country devoid of trees, where the summers are short and the winters are long and dark — Iceland doesn’t exactly sound like a paradise for culinary travelers. And the truth is, the country has never been thought of as a great foodie destination. For centuries, people had to get by with a limited amount of produce, whatever fish they could pull from the sea, and lamb. Lots of lamb.
But as Iceland has evolved from an isolated island far from the tourist track to a well-connected hotspot for travelers, the food has caught up to modern times.
In fact, in 2017, five Icelandic restaurants made it into the Michelin dining guide, and one — Dill, a forerunner of the New Nordic cuisine movement — even earned a Michelin star. Yet even as it enjoys a creative renaissance, the country’s culinary heart still beats for the classics, whether prepared straight-up or reinvented with a modern twist.
From cosmopolitan Reykjavik to remote mountain towns, destinations across the country serve food that’s rich and hearty, perfectly suited for Iceland’s freezing winters and cool summers. And yes, fish and lamb — so much fish and lamb — still feature prominently.
Here are 14 traditional Icelandic foods every visitor should try.
Plokkfiskur is a traditional fish dish made with boiled haddock, cod or halibut. Originally devised as a way to make leftover fish delicious and hearty, it’s perfect for filling a belly on a cold winter’s day.
First, the cooked fish is flaked and mashed with boiled potatoes, onions, butter and milk, until it’s the consistency of a brandade — like an appetizing version of fish mashed potatoes. Next, it’s smothered in béarnaise sauce, and broiled until the sauce on top is slightly browned. It doesn’t always look so appetizing, but it is delicious.
While plokkfiskur is more of a homey comfort food, you can find it on a few restaurant menus, including at the cozy Þrir Frakkar restaurant in Reykjavik, where it’s served with dark rye bread and butter.
One of Iceland’s best known and often-mocked foods, hákarl is another result of Icelandic ingenuity. The meat of Greenland sharks is poisonous when fresh, so to make it edible, the Icelanders of yore learned to clean and bury the meat, topping it with heavy stones so that the poisonous fluids would be pressed out. The meat then sits in the ground for 6-12 weeks, after which it’s dug up and hung to dry before it’s cut into pieces small enough to be palatable.
Nowadays, it’s mostly eaten by Icelanders only on special holidays — and by brave tourists who feel compelled to try what Anthony Bourdain called “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he’d ever eaten.
To combat the taste — and the even worse stench of ammonia — hákarl is usually served with a shot of Brennivín, a strong brandy flavored with caraway and nicknamed The Black Death. It’s found on the menus of many tourist restaurants, and sold in small bites at the Reykjavik Kolaportið flea market.
It might not be the best thing you eat, but it will certainly be one of the most memorable.
High in protein and low in fat, skyr is marketed in the U.S. as an even healthier alternative to Greek yogurt. While it indeed has the consistency and tartness of thick, creamy yogurt, it’s technically a cheese, but that doesn’t stop Icelanders from eating it like a yogurt, topping it with fruit for breakfast, adding it to sauces and even using it in dessert.
The most basic iteration — a tub of plain or flavored skyr — can be purchased at any convenience store, gas station or grocery store around the country. It can also be found mixed into smoothies, and added to waffles and cakes for a firmer texture and tangy taste. It’s also sometimes used in place of cream cheese or mascarpone in Icelandic versions of cheesecake or tiramisu.
Icelandic Fish and Chips restaurant in Reykjavik even uses skyr to flavor its Skyronnes dips, with flavors such as tartar, basil and garlic, and tzatziki.
It only takes a short drive out of Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavik, to see why lamb is a popular dish on Icelandic menus. Sheep significantly outnumber people, and lamb meat has always been a staple of the local diet. The meat produced in Iceland comes from free-range, grass-fed lambs, so it’s tender, delicious and very popular.
Lamb can be found on just about every restaurant menu in some form, including grilled lamb, braised lamb, lamb soup and lamb carpaccio. It’s even used in Icelandic hot dogs. In Reykjavik, Tapas Barinn serves its in a licorice sauce, Kol grills up a lamb sirloin with blueberry polenta and Icelandic cheese, and candlelit Laekjarbrekka serves a melt-in-your-mouth braised lamb shank in red wine glaze with mashed potatoes and mushrooms.
Icelandic Hot Dogs
Forget what you think you know about hot dogs. The version found in Iceland is nothing like the ballpark franks of your youth. For starters, they’re made mostly with lamb (some are also made with a little pork or beef) and have a natural casing that gives a snap when bitten into. Next, they’re topped with a delicious combination of condiments, including a sweet brown mustard made specifically for hot dogs and called pylsusinnep (translation: hot dog mustard), ketchup, raw and crispy fried white onions, and remolaði, a mayonnaise-based sauce with capers and herbs.
Hot dogs are the unofficial fast food of Iceland and are sold at every gas station and many convenience stores around the country. You can even get them at the airport. But, the most famous place to try one is in Reykjavik at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, which has been open since 1937 and has served a whopping 70 percent of the country’s 330,000 residents, as well as celebrities ranging from Bill Clinton to the Kardashians.
Dried salted fish, harðfiskur (which literally means hard fish) is a beloved local snack. This centuries-old high-protein food is usually made from cod, haddock or wolffish that’s been air dried until it’s hard and brittle. Die-hard fans of the food often eat the salty snack plain, while others spread butter on the crispy dried fish to add more fat and flavor.
Harðfiskur is sold in small packages at just about any grocery or convenience store. Since the fish has been cured, it doesn’t need to be refrigerated, which means it’s an easily portable snack for a long day of hiking or a lightweight edible souvenir to bring back from your trip.
Iceland has no shortage of delicious baked goods, but rúgbrauð may be one of the most popular. This dense, slightly sweet, dark brown rye bread has been baked by Icelanders for centuries.
The bread boasts a cake-like consistency, with a hint of sweetness that’s usually offset by serving it with a thick layer of butter. Other times, it’s topped with pâté, smoked lamb or pickled herring. Often served as a side dish with fish, it’s found in many traditional restaurants as well as grocery stores throughout the county.
Before many Icelanders had in-home ovens, the bread was sometimes baked by burying it underground near a hot spring so that it was cooked by geothermal heat and steam. At the Laugarvatn Fontana Spa in southwest Iceland, it’s still cooked that way. Guests can watch, then taste the bread fresh from the underground “oven” twice a day.
Langoustines, also known as Norway lobsters, are small Atlantic lobsters that are similar in appearance to crayfish. Prized for their deliciously sweet meat, they are served in soups, whole in the shell, or as langoustine tails grilled, steamed or sauteed with garlic and butter.
The town of Höfn on Iceland’s southeast cost, about 280 miles from Reykjavik, is considered the unofficial langoustine capital of the country and even hosts a langoustine festival in June. Locals and visitors dine at the town’s restaurant, Humarhöfnin, which serves langoustine in soup, in sandwiches, on pizza or grilled in the shell. Closer to Reykjavik, Rauða Húsið and Fjöruborðið both specialize in langoustine grilled with garlic and butter.
Fish and Chips
It’s no surprise that in a small island nation in the North Atlantic, fish is a staple of the cuisine. Around the country, you’ll find a variety of fish, such as haddock, cod, salmon, plaice, tuna and arctic char, served grilled, poached, baked, sauteed, stewed and raw. One of the most popular options for fish takes a nod from Britain: fish and chips.
Several restaurants around the country specialize in fried fish — usually locally caught cod, haddock and wolffish — fried and served with crispy chips (French fries to Americans). For a healthy-ish take on this fried dish, head to Icelandic Fish and Chips in Reykjavik. Its selection of fish varies according to what was brought in fresh that morning, the fish is fried in organic spelt batter, and the dips are made with Icelandic skyr.
In Iceland, if you’re looking for a donut to go with your coffee, ask for a kleina (or some kleinur, if you want several). These twisted donut-like treats can be made savory, flavored with cardamom, or for a sweeter taste, embellished with vanilla or dipped in chocolate.
While kleina isn’t exclusively Icelandic — it’s found throughout Scandinavia — it is a beloved and ubiquitous pastry enjoyed all year round throughout the country. Bags of kleinur are available in the pastry and bread section of any grocery shop. They’re also sold individually wrapped at gas stations or in the pastry cases of any coffee shop, where they’re meant to be dipped into your hot beverage of choice.
A steaming bowl of lamb soup, or kjötsúpa, is a common way to serve Iceland’s most popular meat, particularly during the long winters. While every family has their own recipe, any pot of traditional kjötsúpa calls for lamb, potatoes, rutabagas and carrots in a clear vegetable broth. Some versions also include onions and herbs, while others are thickened with rice or rolled oats.
Kjötsúpa is found on many restaurant menus as an appetizer or a meal — particularly at restaurants that focus on traditional dishes. In downtown Reykjavik, Íslenski Barinn, or Icelandic Bar, serves a particularly delicious version that’s hearty enough to make a meal.
Rye Bread Ice Cream
Considering the chilly climes, it’s somewhat surprising that Icelanders have such a love for ice cream. In fact, there’s even a word (ísbíltúr) for the specific pastime of driving around town and eating ice cream. You’ll find locals queued up for ice cream all year round at popular spots like Valdís, located in the Grandi neighborhood of Reykjavik and known for serving unusual flavors such as licorice and Turkish pepper, and Ísbúð Vesturbæjar, which has been offering creamy soft serve since 1985.
One of the most unusual varieties, though, combines ice cream with traditional Icelandic rye bread. Cafe Loki in Reykjavik has created a one-of-a-kind dessert: Their rye bread ice cream is studded with chewy chunks of the bread and topped with rhubarb syrup and whipped cream.
Icelanders have been hunting whale as a food source since as far back at the 12th century. The country took a brief hiatus from whaling from 1986 to 2006, and since then whale meat has mostly fallen out of favor with locals. However, meat from minke whales (which are not endangered) is still readily available on many restaurant menus, mostly thanks to tourists.
In a 2016 Gallup poll only 19 percent of Icelanders said they had purchased whale meat in the past 12 months, while 12 percent of tourists said they had tried it while in Iceland. With nearly 2 million annual tourists compared to just 330,000 Icelanders, it seems visitors are eating the majority of the whale meat served in Iceland.
While many people steer clear of whale meat for ethical reasons, those who do try it may be pleasantly surprised by the taste. The red meat is lean and tender, with a slightly salty flavor. To try it without committing to a large portion, head to Tapas Barinn, which offers tapas-sized plates of traditional Icelandic dishes.
With langoustine (Norway lobster) such a popular protein in often-cold Iceland, it follows that creamy langoustine soup called humarsupa is a popular way to consume it. The dish starts with a stock flavored by langoustine shells and is made rich and velvety with the addition of cream and, often, sherry or cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and coriander.
For a cheap (relatively, by Iceland standards) option, head to the waterfront Sægreifinn, which proclaims itself the home of the “world’s best lobster soup.” The deceptively simple bowl of soup is studded with massive chunks of langoustine and served with crusty bread for dipping. If a jovial communal table in a small former fisherman’s shack isn’t your scene, go a bit more upscale with the sherry-spiked version at Laekjarbrekka, which is topped with a heavenly dollop of cream.