Icelandic Cuisine and Food Culture - Your Complete Guide
If you’re looking for your next adventure, check out our cheap flights to Iceland and discover what you’ve been missing in the world’s great north.
With beckoning glaciers, untouched wilderness, lava-spewing volcanoes, glowing northern lights, expansive grassy fields, picturesque villages, and coveted hot springs, (not to mention some of the world’s most friendly locals), Iceland is a true escape into dramatic natural beauty like no other.
Any Anthony Bourdain fan will tell you that eating the local food is one of the best ways to discover a destination’s culture.
What do Icelanders love to have on their plate?
Here’s our guide to the best of the country’s food and culture for a taste of what awaits.
Icelandic food history
Food has a way of revealing the past, its struggles and victories. The culinary delights of Iceland are no exception and peering at your plate in this country will provide you with a unique window onto a life led by the seaside and fields steeped in demanding conditions.
Mainstays of Icelandic cuisine include fish, meat, and dairy in varying forms. It’s not that Icelanders loathe a bit of fiber but rather that growing fruits and vegetables naturally is difficult here due to a lack of arable land and a short growing season.
Today, geothermal greenhouses can be heated and used to harvest foods long antagonistic to the nation changing the shelves of local grocers but much of Iceland’s culinary history remains intact and in stock. Icelandic food was originally designed to be preserved over long periods of time and, as such, a bulk of it relies on smoking, fermenting, curing, and salting its ingredients.
After a short ice age in the 14th century, Icelanders turned to subsistence farming and began relying on cereal grain more heavily than before. Danish culture began influencing the country during the late 1800s and fishing exports helped transform the country’s economy over decades.
Today, fish remains an integral part of Icelandic cuisine with some people even eating this staple for breakfast. Fish oil and fresh fish are consumed multiple times per week with cod, salmon, haddock, and other delights warming the plate. Are you looking for the best Icelandic food experience? Read on.
Traditional Icelandic food
Traditional Icelandic food is unique and filled with flavor. Some dishes, like Harðfiskur, or “dry fish”, date all the way back to the area’s Viking era. Eaten as a dried snack, this food is packed with protein and often made from ocean catfish, haddock, cod, or arctic char. Filleted or butterflied first, this fish is dipped in brine before being hung to dry. Once you can break it easily and it crumbles, it’s ready to be consumed. Eat this fish as is or slather it in delicious butter for a hearty bite to eat.
Another long-time favorite Icelandic food is fermented shark, also known as “rotten shark”. This delight smells worse than it tastes but is cured in a specific way for a precise reason. Greenland shark is a poisonous fish when it's still fresh because it has a high content of urea. This, along with the presence of trimethylamine gives the shark some added protection in icy waters as nature’s “anti-freeze”. It also makes this meat impossible for humans to consume safely, however, if it isn’t fermented or boiled many times over to remove the toxins.
If this all sounds a little unsettling, rest assured many Icelanders love this dish. Others do profess to keep it at a distance and won’t touch it with a ten-foot pole, but to each their own. It’s worth trying at least once for the incredible experience.
What is typical Icelandic cuisine?
Some of the most popular food in Iceland comes in the form of simple, comfort cuisine. Skyr, or Icelandic yogurt, is one of these, drawing on Scandinavian roots. This food is similar to yogurt but milder in taste and creamier in its consistency. Many Icelanders eat Skyr after lunch, adding in milk, berries, brown sugar, and granola. This food presents a great way to pack in the protein while dosing up on useful probiotics.
Food Iceland is known for also includes lamb meat soup, or Kjötsúpa. Made from lamb or mutton and root vegetables like carrots and potatoes, this dish is similar to a plethora of staple stews found in cultures across the globe. Traditionally, Kjötsúpa doesn’t call for any seasoning, but it does require a tough, flavorful cut, with bone-in preferred. Often thickened with barley, rice, or rolled oats for a heartier experience, this dish creates an ideal wintertime, one-bowl meal.
If you’re galivanting around Iceland’s countryside you’re also certain to encounter flatbrauð, also known as flatkaka. This is a traditional pan-fried Icelandic bread that you top with butter, cheese, slices of smoked leg of lamb or decadent lamb liver paté. Yum.
What foods are unique to Iceland?
In line with their sea-based heritage, one of the classic foods unique to Iceland is minke whale. This dish centers around the smallest of the baleen whales present in waters near Iceland and runs into controversy as the International Whaling Commission (IWC) agreed to stop commercial whaling by 1986. Nonetheless, minke whale is sometimes served to tourists as a steak or grilled and a few restaurants still serve it, but availability depends primarily on the demand.
Most locals abstain, and to get slightly political it’s worth pointing out that if you abstain as well, there won’t be any market left and these gentle giants can continue to live in harmony with Iceland’s many whale watching tours.
What do Icelanders eat?
Icelanders eat a wide variety of foods throughout their day that tourists have come to love. Here’s a peak.
What is a typical Icelandic breakfast?
A typical Icelandic breakfast consists of an assortment of delicious delights. The cold weather requires a hearty beginning to the day and many Icelanders love to wake up to a thick bowl of oatmeal to warm them up. If you’re frequenting a local café, you might find this paired with a bowl of Skyr topped with fruit or jam with a slice of buttered bread on the side.
Added to this may be a dose of cod liver oil to keep you healthy with a spread of cheese and cold cuts on hand just in case you’ve still got room for more.
For a sweeter breakfast, kleinur is often available. These are pieces of deep-fried dough akin to donuts. (Yes, Iceland is also known for its treats and this one is sure to have you coming back for seconds).
What is a typical Icelandic lunch?
You can find all kinds of modern food in Iceland’s capital city of Reykjavík, from Taco Bell to KFC and beyond. Most locals will tell you that a typical Icelandic lunch calls for something a little closer to home, however.
A popular choice is a smoked lamb sandwich (known as a “hangikjot” sandwich) served on traditional flatkaka bread. Also, a solid bet are pönnukökur or Icelandic pancakes, similar to French crépes and plokkfiskur, a rich fish stew thick with mashed potatoes and onions forming a flavorful white sauce. Be sure to grab a slice of rye bread to catch all those drippings in the bottom of the bowl.
What is a typical Icelandic dinner?
Dinner in Iceland can involve many of the aforementioned dishes but it’s often that fish, typically haddock, cod, or salmon, takes center stage. In addition, a truly Icelandic treat is pylsa, the Icelandic hot dog, which is not to be missed. Influenced by the Danish and likely brought to the country during the 1800s, this hot dog is made from a delectable mixture of lamb, pork, and beef and covered in sweet Icelandic mustard sauce, remoulade sauce, (a mixture of capers, mayo, herbs and mustard), fried onion crumbs and chopped raw onion. Icelandic meat is known for its tender freshness, and this is largely due to its organic origins, as animals on farms live free-range, roaming the countryside eating plants and berries. It sounds idyllic and… it is.
Best restaurants in Iceland
So, where should you head for the best restaurants in Iceland? “Best” is always subjective to some degree, of course, but here are some we feel you certainly don’t want to miss.
Dill is one of our top contestants and the internet thinks so, too. With 4.5 stars out of 5 from well over 700 reviewers on TripAdvisor, the New Nordic fare at Dill is sure to please the most discerning palates. As the first restaurant in Iceland to be awarded a Michelin star, this establishment was founded by Chef Gunnar Karl Gíslason in 2009 and pledges to honor Icelandic ingredients and traditions. Gorgeously presented gourmet plates filled with ingredients like reindeer moss, smoked ice cream, pinecones holding cured meat, and much more, adorn elegant tables in this mouthwatering locale.
With just 11 seats to fill in this unique Reykjavík culinary destination, reservations are a must. Described as “magical” and “exclusive” Chef Thrainn Freyr Vigfusson prepares dishes that are said to provide diners with a “playground of delight” from the sea and fertile soil of Iceland. What these meals contain remains a mystery that can only be solved by making a reservation and challenging yourself to enter the wonder of the Icelandic kitchen. ÓX was awarded its Michelin star in July, 2022.
Slippurinn (Westman Islands)
This sustainable restaurant respects the land and sea throughout its menu and pushes the benefits of eating local to improve the health of the planet. Local specialties of all kinds including fish, wild herbs, and seaweeds, are sourced from nearby environments and served up fresh in a colorful display. Slippurinn is a family-run restaurant seeking to pass on the special nature of the Islands to guests and a passion for local food.
For those searching for a bit of the exotic while in Iceland, venture over to this hub of international taste in the nation’s capital. Sümac is home to delicious Middle Eastern cuisine as well as specialty handcrafted cocktails from the Mediterranean. From saffron couscous to crispy falafel, and grilled bok choy, it’s all here in spades.
Popular Icelandic drinks
Care for a drink? Cold Icelandic tap water is considered by many to be some of the purest on the planet with 95% coming from natural springs. Free from chlorine, nitrates, and calcium, this is crystal clear goodness in every glass. The hot water in the country comes often from geothermal wells and isn’t technically classified as drinking water and so it’s best to boil water for your tea to heat it and not take it hot straight from the tap.
The country’s top beers include Ulfur, Kaldi Blonde, Víking Gylltur, and Einstök, among others. And you can’t finish the list of drinks without mentioning Brennivin. This is Iceland’s signature distilled drink, nicknamed the Black Death. Distilled over an open flame and made from fermented grain mash, this drink is flavored with caraway for a distinct savor.
Popular Icelandic sweets
For those with a sweet tooth, check out the country’s licorice available in stringy shoelaces, coupled with marzipan, and surrounded by chocolate. Þristur is one of the top types you must try if you’re a fan of black licorice. Icelanders also love Pralín peppermint chocolate, Hraun (chocolate reminiscent of bits of lava), and Kókosbollur coconut balls.
Book your next flight with PLAY
Iceland is the new global culinary horizon, leading the world in food sustainability and traditional practices. As a foodie destination filled with discovery, excitement, and new flare, those who visit and try Icelandic food are sure to come back for a second helping.
For the best travel options to Reykjavík as well as enchanting escapes through the Icelandic countryside, book your flight with PLAY and discover a world unimagined. Your adventurous heart, and your taste buds, will thank you.