How is food in Iceland – delicious or disgusting? What to eat in Iceland and what to avoid? What are the typical Iceland groceries? Check what is Skyr, why the sharks are buried, and what to cook in a geyser.
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Food in Iceland – what to eat in Iceland (and what to avoid?)
Food in Iceland is an important part of Icelandic culture. It’s connected to the history and the climate of the island. What to eat in Iceland and what to avoid might depend on the availability of the items – you won’t always get what you might want. Iceland is, however, home to a unique and changing food scene, interesting ingredients, and talented chefs. One of the famous Icelandic chefs wrote a book about The New Nordic Cuisine of Iceland, which is great for understanding the food culture and learning new fascinating recipes from Iceland. Order a book here.
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Vegetarians or meat-eaters?
Iceland is definitely a great place for 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, the 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. During our 7 days Iceland road trip, we managed to taste some of the famous Icelandic dishes.
Food in Iceland – what to eat in Iceland?
Here are some of the “delicacies”, that are worth to be tried at least once during your stay in Iceland – we’ve tested them all!
#Kæstur hákarl – fermented (rotten) shark
This should probably be in the “what to avoid in Iceland” section, but I think it’s worth trying it just once.
Imagine very stinky French cheese. Then multiply it by 10, add some acidity and you will have a small approximation of the smell of hákarl. Yummy.
Hákarl is a national Icelandic dish made from shark meat cured with a specific fermentation process by burying it underground and then drying for 4-5 months. The fresh shark meat is full of acid, which makes it impossible to be consumed, however, after the fermentation process, it’s possible to be eaten (if you manage the smell haha).
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. A 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.
Where to try hakarl in Iceland?
We tried hakarl on our first day in Iceland, in Reykjavik in Cafe Loki. 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.
How to eat hakarl?
The worst part of eating a fermented shark is the 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 a 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.
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 very first spoon. It’s definitely my favorite food in Iceland and on top of my “what to eat in Iceland” list. This type of food is liked by almost every visitor in the country.
Skyr is an Icelandic very thick and creamy yogurt. Thanks to its thickness 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.
The Skyr 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. We tried the one below in the Skogafoss restaurant – delicious!
Skyr is unique to Iceland but it made its way abroad and you can find it in shops in the UK or US. You can even find Skyr on Amazon here! 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 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 traveler in Iceland.
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
It’s rye bread – dark, dense, and usually rather sweet. Traditionally, it was baked in a pot buried 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 for 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.
#Geothermally 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 hot springs area. They have different types of local bread (above) and a buffet with geothermally cooked soups and cold meats. Alex tried local fish, which was also cooked in a traditional method. Everything was delicious.
Update 2021: The restaurant’s name was Kjöt og Kúnst, but it seems like it has been permanently closed.
#Lamb in different forms
Before coming to Iceland I’ve read that their lamb tastes different from the European one. 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 restaurant dishes have high prices in Iceland, but it was worth it.
We had the Icelandic lamb stew at one of the petrol stations near Vik. It was a mix of meat, vegetables, potatoes, and very aromatic sauce. During a rainy and windy day, 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 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, so when I found something similar in Iceland, I wanted to try it. We just tried the black “blood pudding”, and I loved it.
We had it for a week, fried with fresh eggs while camping in Iceland. It was crispy and smooth – you can’t imagine a better meal when spending most of your time outdoors. The taste is different than the one in Poland or Scotland – I must say, that I prefer the Icelandic one. It’s smoother, richer, and tastier. I was even considering bringing some back.
Fiskur – fish
Fish is the 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 Icelandic fish stew, I wouldn’t recommend buying it from the supermarket. However, we had a 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 ;-).
#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 of mutton and it’s a favorite bread spread for the Islanders.
#Fiskibollur – Fishballs
Similar to meatballs, but light in colors, as fish balls are made from fish and onion with potato. We had them from the supermarket for our first dinner at 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.
We got them as a kind of snack in a bar in Reykjavik. They were similar in taste to the British ones but much bigger.
Food in Iceland – what to avoid?
#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 chilling in the wild hot springs. But we also tried some Icelandic ones.
Beer in Iceland
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 a maximum of 2,5% – for other ones you need to go to a specific shop. 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 the 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 flavors of dark chocolate and roasted malt. Delicious. And I still have a bottle – the illustration shows the view from the brewhouse door when a volcano eruption happens.
Spirits in Iceland
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 flavored 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!
Would you like to try any Food in Iceland? What would you like to eat in Iceland and which one you’d rather avoid? Let me know in the comments!
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