Iceland’s known for its stunning dramatic scenery – and this has also played a massive part in the history of the foods of Iceland. Historically, food production here was driven by a need to survive, and so Icelandic cuisine was simple, uncomplicated fare, based mostly around dairy, meat, and fish. Icelandic foods are famous for being healthy, pure, and unadulterated.
When meat was caught it was generally cured, dried, and smoked to preserve it for as long as possible – which is why you’ll find plenty of fermentation and smoking (and some unusual meats) within this list of Icelandic food.
- Icelandic Food
- Hakarl/ Fermented shark
- Harðfiskur/ Dried fish
- Plokkfiskur/ Fish stew
- Svið/ Sheep's head
- Ice Cream
- Humar/ Lobster or langoustine
- Pönnukökur/ Icelandic pancakes
- Brennivín/ Black Death
- Hangikjöt/ Smoked lamb
- Light beer
- Kjötsúpa/ Lamb soup
- Kókómjólk/ Chocolate milk
- Rúgbrauð/ Hot Spring Rye Bread
- Pylsa/ Hot Dogs
- Kleinur/ Twisted doughnut
- Malt and Appelsín
- Tap water
- Snúður/ Cinnamon rolls
- Hrútspungar/ Sour Ram’s Testicles
Hakarl/ Fermented shark
Possibly the most famous food from Iceland is perhaps not one of the most appetizing. The dish known as Hakarl is fermented shark – Greenland shark to be precise. The traditional Icelandic process of preserving the shark is to bury it underground for months, then urinate on it, then hang it up to dry for months.
Thankfully, the urine part is skipped nowadays. However, it is still buried and dried to create the dish as it’s known today. It’s normally cut up into small cubes and served as an hors-d’oeuvre. Most people agree that it’s not the most delicious thing in the world – but still an essential thing to try when visiting Iceland.
Skyr is Iceland’s national yogurt. It’s a dairy product created from a bacteria culture and pasteurized skimmed milk. Some people say it’s more like a cheese, but mostly it’s a similar consistency to Greek yogurt.
Skyr has been a big part of traditional Icelandic cuisine for centuries (maybe longer), and it’s eaten with all sorts of different dishes. Today, its scope is spreading and Skyr has been seeping into other cultures around the world. You can get it in all sorts of flavors.
Harðfiskur/ Dried fish
People in Iceland get hooked on fish from a young age, and one of their favorite snacks is harðfiskur (translating as “hard fish”). It’s basically a dried fish jerky that’s eaten in abundance on the island.
This delicacy has been popular in Iceland since the times of the Vikings. When the fish is dehydrated it shrinks to 9% of its original size, and is delicious as a snack with a dollop of butter.
In the past, when grain was hard to come by and had to be imported from Denmark, Icelanders would eat a piece of dried fish instead of bread for lunch.
Plokkfiskur/ Fish stew
Plokkfiskur is a sumptuous Icelandic comfort food – always a good choice if you see it on the menu. This traditional Icelandic food is made with a combination of boiled fish (normally cod or haddock), mashed potatoes, white sauce, and onions.
It is a warming meal to have during Iceland’s cold and harsh winters, and today nearly every Icelandic family will have its own recipe for plokkfiskur. It’s normally served up with a piece of rye bread to mop up the sauces.
Svið/ Sheep's head
Perhaps one of the less appealing foods in Iceland comes in the form of an entire sheep’s head. This is known as svið, and it’s normally smoked or boiled – but sometimes it’s preserved in a special sheep’s head jelly. Apparently the cheeks from a sheep’s head are amazing.
Sheep’s head isn’t eaten much nowadays on a daily basis, but it is served up as part of Þorrablót – Iceland’s midwinter feast celebrations. These celebrations normally showcase some of the weirder elements of Icelandic cuisine!
Ice cream is a big thing in Iceland – with ice cream vendors all over the country. It can also be found sold in gas stations and general stores in a variety of flavors. If you’re out at night and fancy a cold treat, in Iceland ice cream stores stay open until the early hours, so you’re in luck.
Bragðarefur is a good option – you get to choose one flavor of ice cream and three toppings (candy, fruit, and sauces) which gets served up in a mountain of indulgence. Another favorite is rúgbrauðsís which is a type of rye bread ice cream.
Humar/ Lobster or langoustine
Icelandic lobster is actually more like what we might know as langoustine – it’s smaller and only the tail part is eaten. It tends to be caught in the waters off the south coast of Iceland.
Although it’s an expensive dish to order in a restaurant, you’ll find the tender and tasty langoustines known as humar in all sorts of different forms, whether that’s fried, baked, grilled, or on top of a pizza. Another popular version is humarsúpa (lobster soup). If you fancy having a go cooking it yourself, frozen lobster tails can be picked up in most supermarkets too.
Pönnukökur/ Icelandic pancakes
One of the more common Icelandic foods is served up for breakfast, lunch, or tea, in the form of pönnukökur or Icelandic pancakes. On the whole, they’re fairly similar to the pancakes eaten in France or the UK.
Icelandic pancakes tend to be thin and crepe-like in consistency. They’re normally served with a bit of rhubarb jam and whipped cream. Each family has a large heavy bottomed pancake pan – these skillets are often handed down the generations.
Brennivín/ Black Death
In order to truly feel like a Viking, you have to try Iceland’s national tipple – Brennivín. Known locally as “svartidauði” (which translates encouragingly as “black death”), it’s created from a blend of potato mash, fermented grain, and caraway seeds.
Black death is a clear and unsweetened schnapps. This signature alcoholic drink is usually taken as a shot, often as an accompaniment to pieces of fermented shark.
Hangikjöt/ Smoked lamb
Smoked lamb has been a traditional dish in Icelandic cuisine for centuries. Smoked meat is common in Iceland because it was historically a good way to preserve meat, while also adding flavors.
It’s a popular food in Iceland at Christmas, and it’s normally boiled, sliced, and eaten hot or cold alongside green peas, red cabbage, potatoes in white sauce and Icelandic leaf bread.
It would have traditionally been smoked by hanging it from the rafters – this is the basis for its Icelandic name “hangikjöt” which means “hung-meat”. There are two traditional methods for smoking meat – one is known as “birkireykt” where meat is smoked by burning birch wood. The other is known as “taðreykt” and is commonly used to smoke many different things, and it’s done by burning hay mixed with dried sheep dung!
Beer in Iceland is very light. Normally its alcohol content is as little as 2.25% and it’s a really popular Icelandic drink. Drinking alcohol was not allowed for around 80 years, and the prohibition lasted until the 1st March 1989. Today, this day is celebrated as Beer Day.
Brewing has really taken off in Iceland and now there are some amazing places to drink this light and refreshing beverage, as well as tasting tours of bars and breweries.
Kjötsúpa/ Lamb soup
Kjötsúpa is a traditional dish in Iceland that’s been around for a long time. It’s a hearty meat soup made with lamb shank or shoulder. Most families and chefs have their own variants of the dish but normally the soup includes leeks, onions, seasoning, herbs, swede, carrots, and potatoes.
Kókómjólk/ Chocolate milk
There’s a popular chocolate milk drink in Iceland and one brand has got the monopoly on it – Mjólkursamsalan which runs about 700 dairy farms across the country. It’s known as Kókómjólk and it’s easily recognizable for its iconic packaging with the cat on the front.
Apparently Kókómjólk is also a great hangover cure for the morning after a big night out in Iceland!
Rúgbrauð/ Hot Spring Rye Bread
Rye bread (known as rúgbrauð) is eaten a lot in Iceland, as a side to many different dishes. One of the most famous types is the rye bread cooked in hot springs. The process was made famous by a man called Sigurður Rafn Hilmarsson.
Hot spring rye bread is baked or steamed in casks buried around 30cm deep in the ground by a hot spring or geyser for about a day. This makes a soft, spongy, dense, and crustless bread with a dark brown color, and a slightly sweet flavor.
Eat it spread with butter, with smoked fish and cream cheese, or even blended up into ice cream – you’ll find this everywhere in Iceland.
Pylsa/ Hot Dogs
Although the price of food in Iceland tends to be pretty high, one of the more affordable options is the Icelandic hot dog. Iceland’s hot dogs are renowned the world over and are one of the most popular things to eat – at any time of day – by locals and tourists alike.
The best place in Iceland to get a hot dog is in Reykjavik at a fast food stand called Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur. This is a big favorite and the line usually runs very long. The hot dogs are a blend of beef, lamb, and pork, and you can order them with a variety of toppings such as mustard, remoulade, deep fried onions, or raw onions.
Coffee has been growing in popularity in Iceland for a couple of hundred years now, when it was first imported from Denmark. Today, it’s a really big part of Icelandic daily life, with a wide range of competitive coffee shops and a lack of foreign chains.
Kleinur/ Twisted doughnut
Kleinur are delicious sweet crispy doughnuts in a unique twisted shape. These treats used to be popular around Christmas but today they’re eaten all year-round as a favorite Icelandic food – and a great companion to a rich cup of coffee.
Spices such as nutmeg and cardamom are kneaded into the dough giving them a warming flavor, and they’re not glazed but topped with a dusting of sugar. The result is a doughnut with a crunchy exterior and a doughy middle.
This is a controversial addition to the list, as it’s not a widely eaten dish today. Puffins are charming and charismatic sea birds that are beloved in Iceland. However, traditionally, these beautiful creatures were hunted and eaten.
Today, it is possible to see puffin on tourist menus in Iceland as a specialty dish, smoked and served up like pastrami.
Malt and Appelsín
There are two common non-alcoholic drinks in Iceland. One is malt which is basically a non-alcoholic malt beer – dark and sweet with hints of licorice. The other is applesín which is a fizzy orange drink a bit like fanta.
Put the two together and you get a popular Christmas drink – Malt og Applesín – also drunk all year-round.
This is not a joke – the tap water in Iceland is amazing! It’s widely considered to have some of the cleanest and most delicious tap water in the world. 95% of tap water coming from springs, with no chlorine, calcium, or nitrate in it.
Snúður/ Cinnamon rolls
Not much is known about the history of this particular Icelandic food, but snúður are certainly delicious. They’re individually baked cinnamon rolls that are topped with a coating of chocolate, vanilla, caramel, or sometimes just a sugar glaze.
Hrútspungar/ Sour Ram’s Testicles
By now it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Icelandic people are fond of eating sheep’s testicles. This is an Icelandic delicacy and they are popularly eaten at celebrations. Normally, hrútspungar are preserved in whey (the by-product of making cheese) or gelatin. This is then flavored with garlic and served as a starter, often in the form of a pâté.
So much Icelandic food revolves around its freshly caught fish, free-roaming sheep, and wild products of the island. The country’s capital of Reykjavik has restaurants and chefs that are experimenting with ways of presenting this traditional Icelandic food in contemporary and innovative ways.
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