This post is the fourth and last one in our new series in four parts, covering customs and traditions in Iceland. Here we cover food and drink but the other parts focus on festivals and holidays; literature, music and language; and sports, religion and clothing.
- An Introduction to Iceland’s Customs and Traditions (Part I) – Festivals and Holidays
- An Introduction to Iceland’s Customs and Traditions (Part II) – Icelandic Literature, Music and Language
- An Introduction to Iceland’s Customs and Traditions (Part III) – Sports, Religion and Clothing
Food and Drink
There are several food traditions when it comes to Christmas in Iceland. Laufabrauð (e. leaf-bread) are traditional Icelandic deep-fried patterned Christmas flatbreads. Extended families may get together for a day in the weeks leading up to Christmas to make these. Another tradition is drinking a 50/50 mix of malt and orange soda (malt og appelsín) with Christmas dinner and throughout the Christmas season until “Þrettándinn” (6 January). Hangikjöt (smoked and salty lamb meat) is commonly eaten on Christmas Day along with bechamel sauce, mashed potatoes, green peas and shredded red cabbage.
Icelanders are fond of ice cream and it would be no surprise if we are the highest consumers of ice cream per capita in the world. According to a small research online, New Zealand has the record there, followed by the US and Australia. But Iceland is not even included in the comparison, as sometimes happens with small countries. I lived in Germany for a few years and was astonished to see the ice cream parlours close for the winter in October. In Iceland, that would never happen, surely they are more popular in summer but they also have a steady stream of business in winter, even in stormy weather.
Another popular dairy product is skyr. Skyr has also become known and sold outside Iceland in the past 10-15 years. It is rich in protein and used for breakfast, lunch and even as dessert. Its presentation will depend on the occasion though, the dessert version often with blueberries and even whipped cream.
Popular pastries are kleinur (twisted doughnuts) and ástarpungar (e. love balls), another deep fried pastry from a similar dough, but including raisins unlike kleinur. Please do not confuse ástarpungar with súrsaðir hrútspungar (pickled ram’s testicles), the former will appeal to most people while the latter are more of an “acquired taste”. They don’t have anything in common except for the name including “pungar” though, so confusion should not be a problem. Flatkökur is flatbread often topped with smoked lamb slices or smoked salmon. Also great with gouda cheese and butter, bananas, eggs and more toppings.
Brennivín is also referred to as “Black Death”, a strong akvavit liquor with caraway taste. To be honest, it is not very popular in Iceland nowadays, it used to be more popular before beer was allowed in 1989. Brennivín is probably more popular in the countryside and mixing brennivín into coffee is a proper farmer’s drink that I first heard about from my uncle (who is a farmer). It is a good fit if you get the chance to attend a þorrablót, you can wash down the strong taste of fermented shark with brennivín in coffee, or the other way around, so you might find yourself in a bit of a catch-22 situation there.
Another liquor with taste that is not for everyone is Opal, based on a candy that most Icelanders have fond memories of from childhood. When an alcohol producer got the idea to mix their nostalgic memories of this candy with a vodka shot, it became an instant hit. But Quentin Tarantino was not impressed and said it tastes like poison. He is of course missing the candy from the childhood part.
When Icelanders move abroad, it is common for them to miss certain types of Icelandic candy and many of the most popular types are licorice-based, such as Opal, Þristur, and Draumur.
Beer is the most popular alcoholic beverage in Iceland and many microbreweries have opened since the first one, Kaldi, started the trend in 2006. We have previously covered various sides of the food and drink culture in Iceland, e.g. food halls in Reykjavík, the most popular fast food, Icelandic food and food prices. You might also be interested in learning more about Icelandic drinks and drinking habits.