Much of Iceland’s modern taste in food has been influenced by other cultures. The higher-end restaurants use Icelandic staples like fish and lamb but mirror the New Nordic Cuisine. Most of the fast food restaurants are distinctly American – pizza, burgers, and the like. However, we know that many visitors want to eat Icelandic food. And while you may get hung up on the fermented shark or other strange dishes, there are some great Icelandic meals. This guide will tell you where to go to find them – or how to make them on your own!
Harðfiskur and Brennivín
This traditional combination is the perfect introduction to Icelandic food. Harðfiskur is simply dried fish, typically cod or haddock. You can buy packets of it in every grocery store in Iceland. Think of it as fish jerky, extremely dry but crumbly (it makes a mess!). It is very rich in protein, but it is more of a snack than a meal. The best way to eat it is to plop a bunch of butter on top. Fair warning: wherever you store this bag will smell like fish!
Now, the extremely dry nature of the harðfisksur will drive you to the faucet for a sip of Iceland’s ice-cold water. WRONG! You need to wash this snack down with the Original Icelandic Spirit: Brennivín. Sometimes called “Black Death,” Brennivín is a type of flavoured spirit found in Scandinavia known as akvavit or aquavit. The dominant flavour in Brennivín is cumin and caraway, which gives it a slight liquorice taste. It has been a popular drink in Iceland for centuries because of how cheap it is. This spirit is an acquired taste, but it pairs perfectly with harðfiskur. Enjoy responsibly!
Skyr has been an important part of Icelanders’ diets back to the Middle Ages. Skyr is a low-fat dairy product. It is still technically a cheese, though it is very rich and creamy. The food it most closely resembles is yoghurt. It’s a great source of protein and there is hardly any fat. You can buy a small container for breakfast or use it for dessert. A popular after-dinner dish is a cake that resembles cheesecake but is made with skyr. It’s the perfect snack for hikes and road trips.
Kjötsúpa AKA Meat Soup AKA Icelandic lamb soup is a palette pleaser. For centuries, Icelanders were generally a poor nation and they had to use whatever food they had well. The Icelandic sheep was the most important part of the diet, and every single bit of this hardy animal was used to the utmost. Kjötsúpa is made from bony, fatty bits of lamb, hardy vegetables that are easily stored like potatoes and rutabagas, and a variety of herbs.
Kjötsúpa is not only a simple dish but also the perfect meal for a cold wintry day. This is probably why so many places in the countryside serve it. When you visit a place like Gullfoss waterfall, the cafeteria nearby will certainly stock plenty of meat soup! If you want to try the soup without leaving the city, there are several places that serve it, such as Icelandic Street Food. But we recommend going to Café Loki near Hallgrímskirkja church.
You can also find all the ingredients for this soup at the local grocery stores. You will need 2-2 ½ lbs of lamb with the bone still in, cut into rough pieces, 1 large rutabaga, 4 large carrots, 6 chopped potatoes, 1 medium onion, and the herbs of your choosing (we recommend thyme, oregano, and salt and pepper. There are many different approaches to making the soup, but generally, you begin by throwing some bit size pieces of lamb into a big soup pot, covering it with about 1.8 litres (.5 gallons) of water and bringing it to a boil. After some time, you will need to skim the scum off the top of the water. Add in the herbs and onion and boil for 40 minutes. Add in the rest of the vegetables and boil on low-medium heat until the vegetables are soft. Season to taste!
The English translation of this fishy dish is misleading. People call it “fish stew,” which brings to mind something more soupy. Plokkfiskur is more of a casserole than anything, with a similar consistency to mashed potatoes. But good grief is it delicious! Basically, you mix bits of white fish (cod or haddock) with potatoes, onion, milk and butter. And when done right, covered with a layer of cheese. Is your mouth watering yet?
There are many places where you can order plokkfiskur – even IKEA serves it! But we recommend ordering a dish at Salka Valka, an excellent restaurant on Skólavörðustígur that is named after a Halldór Laxness book. But you can also get pre-made plokkfiskur in grocery stores or in different fish stores around the city. You just plop it into a pan, throw it in the oven and wait. Or you can make your own. It’s a rather simple dish that can last you for days – if you refrain from eating it all in one sitting. There are many different recipes that you can follow!
You may be noticing a theme here. Iceland has a lot of fish, and we love to eat fish! And while many tourists fall prey to fish and chips – there is nothing wrong with this as fish and chips are delicious, but it is not strictly Icelandic – some may be overwhelmed with the choices and varieties. Where do you go to buy fish? Which restaurants serve what?
Firstly, whatever fish you buy, whether it is in a grocery store or a high-end restaurant, it’s going to be fresh. If there is one thing Iceland knows how to do well, it’s fish. You can buy all kinds of fish at the supermarket: frozen cod, fresh salmon, etc. These are fine choices, but there is a noticeable difference between these options and those found in fish stores. At one time, nearly every neighbourhood had its own local fish market. These have slowly disappeared, but there are still some shops around town where you can buy everything you need to make a fish dinner – fresh salmon, cod, and a variety of other fish, lemon, potatoes, and more – or fish in special sauces, such as Indian curry or mango chutney. Fiskbúðin Sundlaugavegi 12 in the Teigar neighbourhood is a local favourite. Fiskbúðin Vegamót in Vesturbær is another excellent shop. In the same neighbourhood, you can find the last independent grocery store in Reykjavík, Melabúðin, which also sells fresh fish.
The fish in the pre-made sauces are an excellent choice, especially if you want to throw something in the oven without much prep work. But we recommend trying the salmon or the similar bleikfiskur. But Iceland is famous for its cod and haddock (white fish), which will also be available. If you are uncertain when you get there, ask those working behind the counter. They know their fish and can assist you in making the best choice for what you want to eat.
When it comes to restaurants, there is an even bigger variety. Almost everywhere you go, you will find an option on the menu for the catch of the day. You cannot go wrong with Arctic Char. No matter how they prepare it, this fish dish is going to satisfy you. High-end restaurants, like Michelin star-winning Dill, will get extremely creative with their portions, ingredients, and recipes. Not quite as fancy (or expensive) but equally delicious is Forréttabarinn – a perfect place to try a variety of quality Icelandic fish. But, really, it is hard to go wrong ordering fish anywhere in Iceland, where fish is our business.
Sheep have been an equally important part of Iceland’s history and economy since they were first brought to the island by the Norse settlers. Naturally, it has been a huge part of the Icelandic diet for centuries. Nowadays, lamb is the central dish for holiday feasts or Sunday dinners with the whole family. For instance, a roasted leg of lamb is considered a classic dish for family get-togethers. You can purchase the meat at most grocery stores in Iceland, and you can find a basic recipe here. There are also more simple options, such as lamb chops, steak and so on that you can easily purchase at the store.
A popular Christmas dish is hangikjöt or smoked and hung meat. The lamb or mutton is smoked using birch wood or, if you want to get really traditional, over sheep dung. The meat is then hung over a fire for several months. It is usually boiled and then served either hot or cold. 90% of Icelanders eat hangikjöt over the holiday season.
The Weird Stuff
We cannot make a list of Icelandic food without mentioning the weirder aspects of Icelandic cuisine. You have probably heard of some of these dishes, but it should be noted that Icelanders were generally extremely poor for centuries. And when famines, volcanic eruptions, or other disasters struck, they were forced to get creative with their food in order to survive. This means that few Icelanders still eat some of these dishes, as much more desirable food is available to them.
Hákarl: fermented shark meat. This is a tourist favourite to try. Shark meat is typically not suitable for human consumption. But, again, Icelanders show their ingenuity. In lean times, they would catch a shark – typically a Greenlandic or other sleeper shark – chop it up, throw it into a hole in the ground, and then put a bunch of rocks on top to squeeze out all the liquids. The meat is then left for weeks to ferment, after which it is hung to dry. So, yes, Icelanders would eat rotten shark meat. You can order hákarl at Café Loki, where the smell is worse than the taste (it’s honestly a bit bland). But you can also purchase a bag of hákarl in different places, such as the Kolaportið Flea Market. And when you open the bag, the ammonia smell can be very, very intense. It is also recommended to wash this down with a shot of Brennivín – or to drown any memory of this experience with the whole bottle.
Súrir Hrútspungar: sour ram’s testicles. You read that right. Once again, this dish can be traced back to a time when Icelanders had to come up with ways to survive. But we don’t care to imagine how this tradition began. Eventually, this dish became a part of the Þorrablót feast, which is basically a parade of bizarre Icelandic food. The testicles are removed, washed, boiled, pressed into moulds, and cured with lactic acid. Once ready, you cut through it and spread it on a slice of bread. NEAT! A Reykjavík restaurant tried to serve this dish back in the 1950s. Since then, it usually appears only in supermarkets around Þorrablót (late January – late February).
Svið: boiled sheep’s head. Unlike the other dishes mentioned here, people still eat this semi-regularly. You can buy it either at BSÍ bus terminal or at the aforementioned Melabúðin. It’s just what it sounds like: half of a sheep’s head that has been singed and boiled. The brain is removed, but the eye and tongue remain. In fact, many Icelanders say that the eye is the best part of svið. If you can get past the presentation, it tastes more or less like mutton or any other lamb dish. But if it’s not your taste, don’t worry! You can also purchase sviðasulta, which is sheep’s head jam! Yes, they smash up the sheep head meat to make a wonderful spread.
Whether you want to make the food yourself or visit local restaurants, Icelandic food is bound to satisfy you. Chefs have made giant strides in turning the basic Icelandic meal of fish and potatoes into something more exciting. Just try not to get hung up on the rotten shark. Oh, and of course, don’t forget to try an Icelandic hotdog before leaving!