“What exactly do they eat in Iceland?” is the first question I’m usually asked about my two week visit to the Nordic island country.
Well, the answer isn’t for the faint of heart.
The local diet hasn’t changed much since the Vikings settled the island sometime in the second half of the 9th century. The preparation of the food is, of course, much tastier than it would have been 1,200 years ago. It’s since had the benefit of other Scandinavian and European influences.
The mainstays of the locals include lamb, potatoes, skyr, and lots and lots of seafood. For a country surrounding by Arctic waters, fishing is naturally the single most important sector of the economy. Fisheries employ up to 20 percent of the workforce. Many of the restaurants serve seafood caught same day. Haddock, herring, skate, salmon, lobster. Seafood is everywhere.
And that’s the good news.
As for the rest of the classic Icelandic dishes, well, I hope you don’t like cute animals.
The isolation of the country has lead the locals to a diet of pretty much whatever is available. Literally, whatever is available — and nothing is wasted.
This leads us to “Súrir hrútspungar,” or soured rams testicles. Though not as common today, they can still be found on menus. This dish is a remnant of a time when Iceland was a very poor country. Pickling them was a way to preserve the meat through the long winter — because you can’t let good stuff like that go to waste.
Fermented Shark or “hákarl” is a national dish of Iceland. Most outsiders who try it find it quite gross. But the dish’s history dates back to a time before refrigerators. See my try Hákarl at the Shark Museum.
On my list of animals too cute to eat, is definitely the puffin, or “lundis” on an Icelandic menu. Atlantic Puffins colonies can be seen at several spots along Iceland’s coast. Quite shockingly, so can the men in bright orange safety suits, situated nearby looking to snatch the unfortunate low-flying feathered fellas with a long net. The practice is aptly named “sky fishing.”
Icelandic Hot Dogs are somewhat of an obsession on the island. They differ from your usual hot dog in that they are made with lamb, pork and beef and loaded with deep-fried onions, raw onions, ketchup, a mayonnaise mixture and “plysusinnep” — a sweet brown mustard. You can also get it “Clinton-style,” a reference to a time in 2004 when former President Bill Clinton visited the most famous hot dog stand on the island, in the harbor in Reykjavik, and ordered “only mustard.” Locals found his plain order to be hilarious and still reference it to this day.
Sheep’s head, Svið, is commonly served in Iceland — eyeballs, ears, tongue and all. It’s usually cut in half and served face-side up (I know. You’re drooling.) I was told Icelanders don’t eat the brains though, for fear of an uncommon but deadly disease.
Horse meat and lamb are common in Iceland. While I didn’t come across horse on the menu (darn), the beautiful animals were everywhere. Horse meat is quickly falling out of favor, however. Only 950 tones were sold last year in comparison to 10,200 tones of lamb.
Icelandic lamb is the most popular protein. Have it any way you like or in the popular dish Meat Stew. It’s on nearly every menu at every meal. Because the sheep roam freely (watch out for those suckers on those bendy backroads!), they graze on natural grasses and plants without any hormones or pesticides present. Their peaceful life gives the meat its flavor — plus it’s always nice to know your meal had a happy life before, well, you know…
While we’re on the unpleasant topic of the afterlife, local liquor Brennivín is colloquially known as the “Black Death.” It is made from fermented potatoes and caraway seeds, but it’s not a ghastly as the name implies. If you dig black licorice, then you just might enjoy this unsweetened schnapps-like liquor.
Finally, back to good news: Even if you’re not open to eating unusual meats — or drinking anything that invokes images of pain and suffering — you will be able to find something you can stomach on any menu.
Most tourist instantly fall in love with Icelandic skyr. Locals will remind you (again and again and again) that it’s “not yogurt.” There’s no fat in skyr. It’s made with skimmed milk and a bacteria culture that is very similar to yogurt, but it’s less heavy feeling. It’s considered a soft cheese, but it’s actually quite healthy. It’s spoonable texture will remind you of a cross between Greek yogurt and soft-serve.
Don’t fall in the trap of treating skyr like yogurt and only eating it for breakfast. Anything skyr touches is delicious. Icelanders eat skyr for every occasion: Breakfast, lunch, a snack, a dip (“skyr-nnaise”), a drink (“drykkur”), or a dessert. If you see “Skyr cake” on the menu, it’s a must have. It’s a cross between ice-cream cake, Cool Whip and heaven.
Fish Soup (Fiskisúpas), was the surprise of the trip. Something seemingly so simple, is popular and available everywhere. The recipe probably uses questionable parts of the fish, but the creamy, clam chowder-like consistency makes that easy to forget. It’s quite delicious, and every restaurant makes it a bit different.
And if you want something to mop up all of that good soup up with, look no further than Icelandic bread.
If awards were given for the coolest way to cook bread, Iceland would definitly win. Geyser Bread, or hot spring rye bread, is buried and cooked overnight using heat from a geothermal spring. It’s chewy with a slight molasses sweetness to it, and is usually served with fish or dried meat.
Other things to keep in mind:
- Most restaurants do accept credit card, but cash is good to have for the occasional hot dog or fish ‘n chips stand you come across.
- There is no tipping in Iceland.
- If you’re just not that into Icelandic food, don’t sweat it. There are plenty of other cuisines available in the capital city, Reykjavik — Thai, Indian, Italian, Chinese, Irish, and of course, an American restaurant where they serve enormous portions.
- Minke Whale is found on many menus in Reykjavik and along the coast, but don’t be fooled. Most islanders don’t like whale meat, but commercial whaling continues because tourists drive most of the demand.
- No one said it’s going to be cheap. Iceland is the 4th most expensive county on the planet — just behind Switzerland. Make a dining budget and stick to it.
- All alcohol is pretty expensive in Iceland, so it’s worth stopping at the duty-free shop from your departure airport. (A local whiskey and Coke cost me about $25 USD at a bar in Reykjavik.)
The real reason to head to Iceland is to experience it’s natural beauty. Dining out is part of any travel experience, but restaurants aren’t too common once you leave the city anyway. You may want to consider packing a Jetboil and some dehydrated camping meals in your luggage if you plan on doing any hiking. While little towns pop up along the way where you can grab a bite, you don’t want to be forced to cut your scenery short because of a grumbling stomach — and it will save you tons of money, too.