Iceland has become a number one camper van rental travel destination for intrepid travelers that want to experience the great outdoors. Many people know about the midnight black sand beaches, the majestic glaciers, frozen ice caves, natural hot springs and glacier lagoons. But I am sure you don’t know much about how Icelandic food evolved since the original settlers in the 9th century. Traditional Icelandic food is characterized by the region and has many dishes centered on marine life, domestic animals, and birds. Icelandic cuisine is typically pure, unprocessed, and reflective of the harsh climate.
However, since more people are visiting Iceland local chefs have been inspired to revamp traditional dishes. The dishes they have created using traditional fresh ingredients are said to rival food meccas like New York City. Examples include deep fried Icelandic fish and chips as well as lamb chops with lava infused salted butter. Trying new Icelandic foods will be just as interesting and unique as viewing the landscape. Now get ready to give your taste buds a party.
What to Eat in Iceland?
When you arrive in Iceland after a long flight your first question might be what to eat in Iceland? If you are ready to try some authentic local fast food you should look no further than a Reykjavik's Hot Dog found at local hot dog stands. It is a special blend of pork, lamb, and beef. You can get loaded toppings such as raw onions, sweet brown mustard, crunchy-fried onions, and a smooth remoulade sauce. The price is very affordable averaging 300 ISK (2.50 USD and 2.18 Euros.)
The next local food to try is Skyr, which is a viscous and creamy dairy product. The texture is a combination of cottage cheese and yogurt. It’s comprised of pasteurized skim milk and yogurt like bacterial culture. Typically you eat it with cream and a tart jam. You can add sugar but Icelanders eat it with just the natural sweetness of the berry jam.
Have you ever heard of bread baked in the ground? Well this unusual method of cooking highlights how Icelanders use the environment to meet their needs. This bread is called Rúgbrauð or Thunder Bread. And it’s a dark rye bread steamed inside the ground next to a hot spring. They dig a whole into the geothermal land and lower a bucket with a lid into the warm ground. The heat from the hot spring then acts like an oven and cooks the bread. The texture is quite dense and has a sweet taste. Icelanders typically have it as a side dish for fish like smoked salmon. The bread is delicious and you’ll have a great story to share with your friends about this very Icelandic food.
Iceland’s National Dish
Hákarl or fermented shark is a traditional dish that was developed as a last food resort. When the weather was particularly severe and food became scarce, fermented shark was created as a survival food. Icelanders would dry the shark meat, soak it in human urine, and then ferment it underground. This dish is no longer part of Icelanders daily cuisine but it is a part of their heritage. Fermented shark is even considered the national dish.
Foodies can try fermented shark at restaurants where it is fermented in vinegar and other items. It’s always served with a shot of Brennivin commonly called Black Death. Black Death is a clear and cumin flavored schnapps derived from fermented grain or potatoes. It is always taken after a bite of shark to make the taste more palatable. Eating fermented shark is an experience to remember and you should try it at least once.
Icelanders enjoy lamb so much there was a petition to make Icelandic lamb the national dish to replace fermented shark. Icelandic lamb is a dish that is served in many different ways. You can have heavy lamb meat soup to smoked lamb. The traditional lamb meat soup is delicious and comprised of lamb, fresh herbs, and vegetables. It will keep you warm in the colder months. Lamb is also served in a refined fashion as roasted sirloin and lamb chops with special lava salted butter.
Another dish is called Sheep’s Head. Although this unusual dish is not served everywhere, people have said it is one of the best meats you can try. Ordering Svið or Sheep’s Head as your entrée would definitely be a memorable experience. Either way you try Icelandic lamb the dish will be enjoyable. Icelandic sheep is saturated with the clean environment from eating berries, walking the land, and drinking the crisp water. When you bite into your meal you can be assured its quality free-range meat.
Best Food in Iceland
Icelandic fish has always been a staple food item in Iceland considering the quantity and access to the North Atlantic Ocean. For example, Atlantic cod, haddock, and salmon have kept Icelanders alive even during the most challenging times. Fish is also Iceland’s largest export and has helped save the economy. The best food in Iceland has to include Icelandic fish. Since it is served at least once a day and can be stewed, smoked, dried, roasted, grilled, fried, or boiled.
Mashed fish stew or Plokkfiskur, is a very popular traditional dish among locals and tourists. This dish consists of boiled haddock or cod fillets on top of smashed or whole potatoes. It’s very hearty and is a wonderful meal to have on a cold day.
Now it’s time to try Harðfiskur or dried fish jerky. This dried fish is considered a tasty snack and was at one time a substitute for bread. If you enjoy any kind of jerky you should definitely try this local delicacy. It is eaten with butter and served at holidays and regular meals. The butter helps soften the texture since it is very dry. Make sure you eat this quickly because it has a strong smell. And depending on the fish that is used it can be even stronger, for example catfish would smell stronger than cod. You can find this unique local snack in grocery stores.
Deep-fried Icelandic Fish and Chips have become quite popular but they are different from the U.K. version. The Icelandic version uses spelt flour for lighter breading and no beer batter. Potatoes or chips are roasted instead of fried creating a crispy exterior but creamy inside. In addition, there is another sauce you can use called Skyronnes. This sauce has a skyr base with herbs, spices, and olive oil mixed in. Other seasonings can include roasted paprika and truffle. It is certainly a dish worth trying.
Unusual Foods to Try in Iceland
There are many unusual foods to try in Iceland such as ram testicles and even the friendly Atlantic Puffin birds. Icelandic dishes are at times shocking but always a reflection of their innovation to survive within the severe landscape.
Hrútspungar or Sour Ram’s Testicles is a local favorite where the testicles of the ram are served to you on a platter. The taste is typically sour and during the winter holiday season stores can actually run out of stock. There are many ways this dish can be prepared such as pickled in vinegar, boiled, or cured in whey.
Whale meat is a controversial dish in Iceland and it’s not eaten as often. It can be served cooked or raw. Many tourists become offended when they see whale meat offered at restaurants. However, most whale meat is sold to restaurants because there is a market for it with travelers.
Whale hunting was more frequent in the past but now the Icelandic Directorate of Fisheries controls this activity. Only two species of whale are approved for hunting the minke whale and the fin whale. Minke whale is sold in Iceland while the fin whale is exported to a company in Japan.
Atlantic Puffins are warmly called the “clowns of the sea” and have an adorable demeanor. In several countries Puffins are protected by law therefore eating this bird has been deemed controversial by many non-Icelandic people. However, Iceland has the largest Puffin population globally and it has been a traditional part of their cuisine. Historically, puffin hearts are eaten raw and taste like beef jerky. Puffin is still considered a delicacy but it’s no longer a popular dish.
Overall, prepare your taste buds and get ready for a grand culinary adventure in this culturally rich island nation.