Is it delicious or disgusting? Check what is skyr, why the sharks are buried and what to cook in a geyser.
* Photos mostly from my phone
Iceland is a great place for the meat or fish lovers. And if you also like dried, pickled or smoked food – then even better! Harsh winters and cold climate are not suitable for growing vegetables, so Iceland doesn’t have many of them. In fact, they were just introduced to the island in the last century. Before that, for many years, Icelandic diet was based mostly on meat (mainly lamb) and seafood. Still, fruit and vegetables found in shops are not as fresh as in the continent and have higher prices. Therefore, traditional Icelandic dishes involve other ingredients.
Here are some of the “delicacies”, that are worth to try at least once during your stay in Iceland – we’ve tried them all!
Kæstur hákarl – fermented (rotten) shark
Imagine very stinky French cheese. Then multiply it by 10, add some acidity and you will have a small approximation of a smell of hákarl. Yummy.
Hákarl is a national Icelandic dish made from shark meat cured with specific fermentation process by burying it underground and then drying for 4-5 months. The fresh shark meat is full of acid, that makes it impossible to be consumed, however, after the fermentation process, it’s possible to be eaten (if you manage the smell ha ha).
It is called a “national dish of Iceland”, although not many Icelanders still eat it. It’s more like an old tradition and mostly older people like it – bartender who we met in one of the restaurants where they were serving Hakarl, said that he wouldn’t touch it, but his grandma loves it for special occasions.
We tried it in Cafe Loki in Reykjavik. For 500 krona you get 4 cubes of fish, as it’s commonly served as a taster with a toothpick. The bartender recommended to rinse it down with a shot of local spirit Brennivin – the type of Akvavit, which was a very good idea (1000 krona for a shot). Some people think that the vodka is already terrible enough, but for me it was fine.
The worst part of eating fermented shark is a smell. It’s strong ammonia-rich, pungent and rancid, definitely not welcoming. When you start eating it, you can’t really sense the taste, the problem is the smell and the very rubbery texture making it hard to chew. After few seconds of trying to chew the fish, the taste is getting stronger and you start noticing the acidic and significant fishy taste. That’s when the sweet Brennivin vodka is very helpful. Thanks to the shot, I managed to finish my one piece of shark, opposite to Alex, ha.
We left two other shark cubes untouched. I doubt that bartender would appreciate it though.
Skyr – yogurt or cheese?
I fell in love with Skyr from the first spoon. It’s this type of food, that almost every visitor in the country likes.
It’s Icelandic very thick and creamy yogurt. It’s so thick, that it looks more like cheese. Despite its richness, it contains barely almost any fat. It has a slightly sour flavor, but the taste finishes with a hint of sweetness.
It has been part of the local cuisine for over a thousand years. The most popular one is traditional, but it comes in many flavors. During our stay in Iceland, it was my usual breakfast and I tried a different flavor every day – yummy!
In restaurants, you will also find desserts made from Skyr. The most popular is skyr cheesecake, very smooth and silky, the best with some Icelandic berries.
Skyr is unique to Iceland but it made its way abroad and you can find it in shops in the UK or US (but the one in Iceland is obviously better). For other desserts – try some Icelandic chocolate when in Iceland!
Pylsur – Icelandic hot dog
If you think that the USA is the main country for hot dogs, think again. This fast food gained a big popularity in Iceland and almost became one of the local dishes. Cheap and sold at every petrol station, it’s a best friend of a budget backpacker.
To be honest, I didn’t see much difference between any other hot dog that I’ve ever tried before in different countries – but I must admit that Pylsurs were good. The sausage was meaty and the mix of fresh and fried onions was crispy. The interesting part was a selection of Icelandic sauces, where you could find spiced mustard and mayonnaise with gherkins and capers.
We also got weird spinach pastry with it – I still don’t know how.
Rúgbrauð – traditional Icelandic bread
Coming from Poland, I always appreciate good bread. Sometimes in the UK I miss the taste of the proper bread, so when I discovered Rúgbrauð in Iceland, I was very happy.
It’s rye bread – dark, dense and usually rather sweet. Traditionally, it was baked in a pot by burying it in the ground next to the hot spring. You can still find bread baked like this and they are just delicious!
You can find a cheap substitute of it in Bonus ( the equivalent of Asda or Wallmart), but it’s better to try the proper one, like those from the Geothermal cooking restaurant in Hveragerði.
Geothermal earth cooked food
Hot springs in Iceland provide heat and energy, that is used in different forms. One of them is traditional geothermal cooking – performed by burying pots in the ground next to the hot spring. You can find the restaurant still using that method in Hveragerði. They have different types of local bread (above) and buffet with geothermally cooked soups and cold meats. Alex tried local fish, which was also cooked in a traditional method. Everything was delicious.
Lamb in different forms
Before coming to Iceland I’ve read that their lamb tastes different to European ones. And I don’t know if this was just us being lucky in the restaurants that we chose, but all the dishes made from lamb in Iceland were just amazing!
I had lamb leg, soup, and a stew.
I tried the lamb leg (“Skogafoss pride”) in the restaurant next to Skogafoss and it was one of the most tender meats, that I’ve had in a long time. It wasn’t the cheapest, as most of the things in Iceland, 2900 krona, but it was worth it.
We had the Icelandic lamb stew on one of the petrol stations near Vik. It was a mix of meat, vegetables, potatoes and very aromatic sauce – very tasty. It was a rainy and windy day and nothing could make us happier than a hot pot of rich meaty meal.
Traditional Icelandic lamb soup (Kjötsúpa ) was part of our last meal in the country in Reykjavik. It was hearty and delicious clear soup, with vegetables and chunks of lamb meat in it.
Slátur – black pudding/haggis
In Poland we have our “kaszanka”, in Scotland there is “black pudding” or” haggis” for a white version. I like both and I don’t really mind what they are made from, so when I found something similar in Iceland, I wanted to try. We just tried the black “blood pudding”, and I loved it.
We had it for a week, fried with fresh eggs, while camping . It was crispy and smooth – you can’t imagine a better meal when spending most of time outdoors. The taste is different than the one in Poland or Scotland – I must say, that I prefer Icelandic one. It’s smoother, richer and tastier. I was even considering bringing some back.
Fiskur – fish
Fish is a main type of food in Iceland. You can try fresh fish in every restaurant. I was more into another type of food during our stay, but Alex tried several different types of fish and all of them were delicious – Local arctic charr in Skogafoss (2700 krona), monkfish in Reykjavik and local fish in the geothermal restaurant in Hveragerði.
Plokkfiskur – traditional Icelandic fish stew
If you want to try the real one, I wouldn’t recommend buying it from the supermarket, but we had limited budget and needed some food for camping, so we got it from Bonus. It was quite good – big chunks of fish with a lot of potatoes and onion.
Harðfiskur – dried fish
Very popular among Icelanders, it reminded me about dried fish in Norway. Here it’s also cod or haddock, however, it’s eaten dry with butter on top. We bought some, but never managed to try and it’s still in our cupboard. But we will try it one day – as it’s dry it can keep for long, so it’s good food for travelling. Although it might still smell a bit fishy.
Other things, which we didn’t always know what they were:
Kæfa – Paté
Once we bought “Gamaldags Kindakefa” in Bonus. Not entirely sure what was inside, I just assumed that there was lamb. It was more like a paste, a little bit like Polish lard (smalec). We had it on sandwiches. It turned out, that it was Icelandic pate, mainly made out f mutton and being a favorite layer on bread for the islanders.
Fiskibollur – Fishballs
Similar to meatballs, but light in colours, as made from fish and onion with potato. We had them from the supermarket for our first dinner in the campsite in Reykjavik. They were quite tasty but didn’t have any exciting flavor. Quite cheap and good food for cooking on the campsite.
Svið – Sheep’s head
We haven’t tried this one and I am not sure if I would, although apparently it just tastes like meat and only the appearance of the sheep looking at you is a bit uneasy. I just saw it frozen in the shop and it felt weird already. However, it’s one of the favorite foods for Icelanders and they eat it for special occasions.
Alcohol in Iceland
Alcohol is very expensive in Iceland, so generally it’s better to bring your own – we brought some wine for our hot springs chilling out times. But we also tried some Icelandic ones.
One of the local beers is Gull, which you can buy in pubs. In normal shops, you won’t find stronger alcohol and even beer has only maximum of 2,5% – for other ones you need to go to specific place. We didn’t know that and we didn’t really have time to look for it, so apart from normal beer in the pub, we bought some lower percentage ones from supermarket – Gull and Thule.
In a pub in Reykjavik, I had the most expensive beer of my life – Lava. It was a proper one, though. Locally brewed, from a small brewery Ölvisholt Brugghús overlooking a volcano Hekla, beer has 9.4% of alcohol. It’s full bodied, black beer with rich flavours of dark chocolate and roasted malt. Delicious. And I still have a bottle – the illustration shows the view from the brewhouse door when volcano eruption happens.
Another Icelandic spirit is Brennivín – Black Death – that’s what helped me to survive eating fermented shark. It’s popular Icelandic liquor, clear unsweetened schnapps made from fermented grain or potatoes and flavoured with caraway (that’s why it’s similar to aquavit).
It’s free in public places like banks, post offices, shops, usually from the coffee machine and very good!
And, as a bonus, you can also cook some eggs in a geyser!
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Would you try any of those dishes? Which one is the most hardcore for you? Let me know in comments!
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