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For many of us, Iceland is still a country surrounded in mystery and viking myths. The wild landscape is what lures most visitors on trips to Iceland but what about the Icelandic cuisine? Icelandic cuisine has changed little since the time of the vikings, and the basic ingredients have remained unchanged: lamb, skyr, potatoes, fish, and plenty of seafood. While the staples have remained the same, Icelandic chefs have added a generous dose of imagination to current Icelandic cuisine, resulting in creative twists but traditional dishes.
Read on to learn how to expertly navigate your food palate while checking out Iceland’s food menus. To make sure you make the most of your trip to Iceland, we’ve rounded up a list of the top 12 things to do in Iceland to help you plan your all-important itinerary. If you are short on time to explore destinations outside of Reykjavik, read our top things to do in Reykjavik article as well.
Skyr is synonymous with Iceland. It’s generally assumed that Skyr is what Icelanders live off. While not technically true, Icelanders do have a habit of eating this anytime, anywhere, and everyday. This soft-cheese concoction is made from pasteurized skimmed milk and a yoghurt-like bacteria culture. Despite being super healthy, Skyr is actually very rich, creamy and definitely worth a try. Skyr is so popular that you can even buy it in drink and sauce form.
2. Hot Dogs
Iceland hot dogs are potentially the underdogs of the hotdog world. As well as the typical pork and beef ingredients, Icelandic hot dogs also include lamb, which adds a richness to the flavour. The hot dog itself is meaty, but the condiments definitely add to the experience. Forget American mustard, the sweet and brown Icelandic mustard is a winner when coupled with raw and deep-fried onion, a pickle remoulade and, of course, ketchup. “ Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur” literally means ‘The Best Hotdogs in Town’ and is definitely the place to sample this Iceland food. Find it in downtown Reykjavik across from the Harbour.
Icelanders are crazy about liquorice, though theirs is sweeter than the ones you’ll find elsewhere, e.g. in Denmark. You’ll find a deluge of the tangy sweet in any sweet aisle. Swirls, laces, drops and bars are all liquirice types are available and make a sweet and simple gift to pop in your suitcase! If you’re a liquorice fiend, try the harsher flavoured salt liquorice for a real kick.
A ‘must-drink,’ Brennivin is Iceland’s national drink. A liquorice flavoured shot nicknamed ‘black death,’ it’s actually nicer than you’d think. It contains plenty of alcohol though so please don’t drink too much of it.
The below food items are less must-eat and more no-choice-but-to-eat items, as they are very typical Icelandic Foods:
Icelanders take pride in their lamb, and rightly so. Left to wander to lush land during the summer, they eat not only grass but plants and herbs. This results in meat that is flavoursome and is melt-in-your-mouth good. Meat lovers who are up for a challenge should also try reindeer, traditional sheep’s head (be prepared to eat the tongue, eyeballs and ears!) and horse while in Iceland.
Used as a side dish for almost every meal, get ready to carb up in Iceland as potatoes are unavoidable. The good news is that, thanks to Iceland’s geothermal powered greenhouses, the potatoes, as well as Iceland’s vegetables, are fresh, nutritious and delicious. Have the potatoes mashed for some real, heartwarming comfort-food.
Icelandic seafood is both unavoidable and a must-eat — as much as you can! The bountiful oceans surrounding Iceland mean you’re unlikely to get fresher seafood than anywhere in the world. Icelanders eat a lot of fish, as part of a main meal, but just as a snack as well. As well as traditionally served fish, try Saltfiskur that has been dried and salted or Harðfiskur which is essentially fish jerky. Add butter and you’re good to go.
As with every country, Iceland definitely has some acquired culinary tastes, if you’re feeling extra adventurous.
Hákarl is a fermented shark delicacy steeped in urban legend. The ‘traditional’ preparation methods supposedly involved burying the shark in the ground before urinating on it and then letting it ferment for months. The fermentation part is right, but the urination part - not so much. This tale probably came about due to the sharks heavy ammonia smell that develops during the fermentation process. The result is a taste that could knock even the most devoted cheese connoisseurs off their chairs. While it’s no longer a popular dish, the older generations in Iceland still indulge in it, along with tourists who have been coaxed into trying it. If you’re going to try it, follow up with a shot of Brennivín, and you’ll be doing it the real Icelandic way. In the recent years, whaling industry has significantly shrunk in Iceland due to the growing popularity of whale watching in Iceland. In fact, only 2% of whale meat is consumed in Iceland.
Another seafood with an acquired taste is Skata — a flat fish with a long tail. A traditional dish around Christmas time, Skata is usually boiled and served at parties the day before Christmas Eve. So if you’re lucky enough to spend Christmas in Iceland, chances are you’ll sample some. Many people claim to love Skata once they get used to the taste but the smell is what really puts people off. It clings to your clothes, the furniture, and can even cause arguments!
3. Pickled Ram’s Testicles
This should be fairly self-explanatory. Not many people would happily choose testicles over a beef steak. However, poverty in Iceland through the ages meant that no part of an animal was wasted, not even the reproductive parts. Ram’s testicles are typically pressed into blocks and then pickled for preservation. We dare you to try out pickled ram’s testicles while in Iceland!
While this list is not exhaustive, it should give you an idea of the various food items on offer in Iceland. Enjoying the food in Iceland will help you to appreciate the stunningly varied landscapes in a whole new way.
Travelling to Iceland? Chat with a local travel specialist in Iceland who can help organize your trip.
Adrien Heriaud Travel Expert in Iceland & Norway
Harpa Groiss Travel Expert in Iceland
Lára Ósk Hafbergsdóttir Travel Expert in Iceland