What You Really Need to Know About Icelandic Food

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One of the most exciting things about traveling is discovering the exciting tastes and flavors that other cultures enjoy. Sometimes you’ll find absolute delights that you could never replicate anywhere else, while other things are a little more…unusual. Icelandic food certainly offers a little bit of both!

You’ve probably heard of some delicacies from Iceland, such as fermented shark, but there’s plenty more to discover. Don’t worry, it’s not all so fishy and there’s a surprising array of dishes to indulge in while you visit. In this guide, we’ll go through some of the must-try food in Iceland, including some top choices when eating out, snacking, and great picks from the market.

So prepare to salivate as we discuss some of the weirdest and most popular foods in Iceland.

The Most Popular Food in Iceland

Popular Icelandic food is extremely varied and while much of the local diet is built around seafood, there are plenty of other options. Icelandic lamb and sheep meat are fairly common and you’ll find an array of more familiar dishes being served up in restaurants across the country. So, let’s tuck in!

Local Icelandic Fish

When discussing food to eat in Iceland, you’ve got to start with local fish. As an island nation, it’s no surprise that much of the most traditional Icelandic food consists of seafood. Fish, shark, and even seabirds have traditionally been eaten in Iceland, and while times have changed, you can still find most of these in abundance.

Icelandic seafood is extremely fresh, often caught the same day as it’s served, and can be dished up in a variety of ways. Almost 350 species of saltwater fish call the seas around Iceland home, including catfish, cod, mackerel, skate, halibut, and monkfish, and many others.

For freshwater fish you’ll find some of the most spectacular salmon in the world. One of the best ways to enjoy Icelandic fish is also the simplest, lightly fried in rich Icelandic butter, served with a baked potato filled with cream and butter, and a light salad. Divine!

Fish Stew (Plokkfiskur)

Plokkfiskur is a fairly user-friendly creamy fish stew, typically made with boiled cod or haddock and served with boiled or mashed potatoes. Most Icelanders will have a secret family recipe, so if you get the chance to dine with a local, you may well be served this delightful dish.

Traditional Icelandic Food

There’s more to Icelandic food than just fish however, and a lot of the most traditional dishes focus on other delicacies, such as Icelandic lamb and mutton. Here’s a small selection of some stunningly delicious delights, as well as some more unusual options. You might not find all of these dishes in every restaurant, but if you seek out traditional places, you’re likely to come across the majority of them.

Kjötsupa (Traditional Lamb Soup)

An amazingly warming winter dish, this hearty lamb soup is made from tougher cuts of lamb and a variety of vegetables and herbs. A long, slow cooking process softens the meat up, resulting in a fatty, meaty broth. It feels like the best food in Iceland after a long day outdoors in the cold.

Svið (Sheep’s Head)

For those looking for unique dishes, Svið is for you! Smoked sheep’s head isn’t an extremely common dish for locals these days, and you won’t find it in every restaurant, but it’s worth seeking out. It certainly tastes better than it looks, and the cheeks are considered some of the finest meat in the world. Just don’t be put off by the way it looks — it really is essentially a sheep’s head gazing up at you from the plate

Harðfiskur (Dried Fish Jerky)

Eaten by locals for centuries, harðfiskur is packed full of protein and makes an excellent, though smelly, snack while hiking. Traditionally, it was eaten in the same way that bread was eaten in other parts of the world. Since Iceland didn’t have the climate for growing grains, bread was extremely rare until the last century or so. Speaking of bread, harðfiskur is delicious eaten with freshly baked local rye bread and Icelandic butter.

Hrútspungar (Sour Ram’s Testicles)

Popular with the locals, it’s harder to get visitors to give this dish a go! It normally comes as a gelatinized loaf, in which the testicles are washed, boiled, pressed into a loaf mold, and cured with lactic acid. Delicious! It looks like any other type of kholodets from around the world, so if you’re already familiar with such dishes, it’s not so unusual.

Þorramatur (Traditional Meat Platter)

If you can’t choose between the various options above, Þorramatur could be for you! This is more of a party buffet, but you can find small platters at some restaurants. It’s basically a communal buffet of the previous dishes, plus blood sausage, sheep’s head jam, fermented shark meat, and liver sausage, served with rye bread and butter. Don’t worry if you find yourself at a party with such a buffet and it doesn’t quite appeal to you. You’ll normally find plenty of more ‘normal’ bits, such as smoked lamb, cold cuts, and cheese. Oh, and it’s all washed down with Brennivín of course, speaking of which…

… Brennivín (Schnapps)

A hefty grain or potato liquor flavored with caraway, Brennivín more or less translates to burning wine. To find out why, just give it a shot!

Icelandic Specialties

Icelanders manage to put their own twist on common foods such as bread and butter. The following items are well worth a mention, as they’re well and truly Icelandic, even if at first glance they’d appear ordinary.

Rúgbrauð(Hot Spring Rye Bread)

Bread isn’t the most traditional Icelandic food, and for many centuries it was a luxury. However, these days you can find excellent dark rye bread across the country. One of the most interesting is Rúgbrauð, which is cooked by burying it in the soil near a hot spring. The natural temperature cooks it perfectly and it’s delicious at breakfast, smeared with thick and creamy Icelandic butter.

Icelandic Butter

There are few other butters in the world that can rival Iceland’s rich and creamy offering. Smjör was our go-to butter. It’s made from the milk of 100% grass-fed cows, making it super flavorsome, easy to spread, and simply delicious just smeared on bread. Just beware though, after trying it no other butter will come close!

Icelandic Cheese

Cheese making in Iceland has really taken off in the last century, and the country is home to a huge selection of delicious home-made cheeses. In fact, more cheese and other dairy products are consumed per capita in Iceland than in the USA. You won’t typically find these cheeses outside of the country, so why not grab a selection for breakfast? You’ll find everything from hard yellow cheeses to soft mold cheeses to stinky blue cheeses, and everything in between. There’s a decent selection at most supermarkets, but for the best, check out specialist stores, such as Búrið in Reykjavík.

Pastries

For a sweet treat, head to one of Reykjavík’s many cafes to indulge in a sumptuous pastry and a coffee. Perhaps the most popular Icelandic pastry is kleina or Icelandic doughnut. Deep-fried and typically flavored with cardamom or vanilla, it’s too good to just have one, and makes a great breakfast treat! Sandholt Bakery is a great place to pick up some of the best in town.

The Best Icelandic Breakfast

They say breakfast is the most important meal of the day. That’s no exaggeration in Iceland, where you certainly need a good meal to start your day right, especially if you plan to be out and about on adventures! Icelandic culture places a lot of importance on breakfast, with locals taking their time over it. There’s no grabbing a cereal bar and rushing out the door here!

Traditional Icelandic Breakfast

Iceland is rated the healthiest country in the world, and the traditional Icelandic breakfast, which is still eaten by many Icelanders, plays a key role. With a focus on dairy products and seafood, rather than sugars and grains, it’s packed full of all you need to feel great throughout the day. Here are some of the key elements.

Skyr (Icelandic Yogurt)

Cheap and easy to find across the country, Skyr is the yogurt of Iceland. Full of protein and vitamins, it’s filling and healthy and is part cheese, part yogurt, making it great for breakfast. When eaten at breakfast, it’s often topped with berries, seeds, and nuts. Thick and smooth, it also comes in many flavors — we loved the blueberry one!

Hafragrautur (oatmeal)

Made with either water or milk, this hearty oatmeal is normally kept fairly simple. You might add a touch of sugar, or even butter, and some dried fruits and seeds. It’s not uncommon to stir in some Skyr and perhaps some fruit jam in either.

Lysi (Cod Liver Oil)

In a country that doesn’t get a lot of sunshine for half the year, it’s important to find other ways to get vitamin D into your body. That’s where Lysi, or cod liver oil, comes in. It’s packed full of everything you need to boost your mood on a cold, dark winter’s day. Lysi offers a number of other health benefits too, such as reducing blood pressure, and is great for people with liver diseases. It might not sound too appealing, but a shot of Lysi at breakfast can get you going!

Unusual Meats in Iceland 

Iceland is home to some unusual and somewhat controversial dishes. Traditionally, food was scarce in Iceland, particularly during the winter, so locals would often eat things that’d seem strange in this day and age. Times have certainly changed however and nowadays you’ll find pretty much anything you need. However, some habits die hard, so let’s take a look at some of the more unusual meats on Iceland’s menu.

Hákarl (Fermented Shark)

On the bucket list of many travelers to Iceland, Hákarl is perhaps the most well-known dish in the country. This fermented shark snack doesn’t have the most favorable reputation though, with many who try it claiming it to be the worst thing they’ve ever eaten. The shark meat is toxic when fresh, so is traditionally cut up and then buried in the sand, where it rots and ferments. After several months, it’s dug up, and then hung up and left to dry for around 5-6months. Then, it’s cut into cubes and either eaten as a chewy snack or served on a traditional Þorramatur (meat platter).

Apparently, shark meat has something like an ammonia taste to it, but for those that can stand it, it’s associated with hardiness and strength. You’ll find it in most supermarkets year-round and some restaurants serve Hákarl that only comes from sharks that were caught accidentally in halibut fishing nets.

Puffin Meat

A controversial meat that is still served in Iceland is puffin, which is often cooked and served like chicken in other places. It’s said that puffin meat tastes strong and gamey, with a pretty distinct flavour. While traditionally the beating heart of the puffin was eaten freshly plucked from the breast, nowadays you’re more likely to see smoked puffin on the menu. 

Not many locals actually eat puffin meat though and there have been several protests in the past. Regardless, you can find it in numerous tourist restaurants, some of which specialize in it.

Whale Meat

Whale meat is an equally controversial dish that you might come across on your trip to Iceland. Again, very few Icelanders ever eat whale meat and regular protests have called for a ban on whaling in Iceland. Mostly, the meat is served up at tourist restaurants and is said to be like steak but fishier. 

Minke and Fin whales are the only whales in Iceland that are allowed to be caught for meat, but only Minke whales are eaten domestically. Meanwhile, Fin whale meat is exported to Japan.

Food and Drink Prices in Iceland

Icelandic food prices are typically considered to be among the highest in the world. However, this is only partly true if you know where to look. While food and drink prices in Iceland’s restaurants and cafes are pretty high, you can find affordable options in budget supermarkets and hidden gems. Let’s take a look.

Grocery Stores and Supermarkets

The best budget supermarket in Iceland is Bonus. Prices for food and drink are around the same as in Western Europe, so while that’s not cheap compared to Southeast Asia, it’s not crazy expensive either. You’ll find local produce such as Skyr, bread, butter, and fish for quite low prices, as they’re not imported.

Here are some rough average prices from Icelandic supermarkets:

  • Tomatoes 1kg: US$2.50 – US$5
  • Apples 1kg: US$1.50 – US$3
  • White rice 1kg: From US$1.50
  • Chicken breast filet 1kg: US$13 to US$18
  • Mid-range bottle of wine: US$19
  • Domestic beer (500ml): US$2.80
  • Imported beer (330ml): US$2.80

Restaurants and Cafes

Food and drink prices in Iceland start to shoot up when you eat out regularly. With high local wages and an influx of tourists, cafes and restaurants soon become pretty pricey. We didn’t eat out very often, but when we did treat ourselves it was totally worth it! Prices really do differ depending on where you’re eating out and what you’re having, but for a rough guess, you can expect to pay:

  • Breakfast, brunch, or light lunch in a cafe: US$15-25 per person
  • Lunch or dinner in a restaurant: from US$25 per person, but a 3-course meal for 2 in a mid-range restaurant will typically average out at just over US$100.
  • Regular coffee: around US$4.40
  • Domestic draft beer (500ml): US$9
  • Imported beer (330ml bottle): US$7.50

The Best Places to Eat in Reykjavík 

While restaurants and cafes are pretty scarce throughout most of the country, Reykjavík is home to a plethora of stunning places to eat out. Covering everything from traditional Icelandic food to the trendiest global cuisines, there’s something for everyone. So, let’s dig in!

Top Restaurants and Cafes

Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur

Not quite a restaurant or cafe, Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur is actually one of the most iconic, and probably the oldest Icelandic street food vendors. It’s a cheap place to eat in Reykjavík, and the name translates to the ‘Best Hotdogs in Town’. They offer a wide selection of different toppings and sauces, but if in doubt, go for one with everything and you won’t be disappointed!

Kaffi Mokka

For the best waffles in town, Kaffi Mokka certainly delivers! It has a 60s diner vibe which is apt, as the decor has barely changed since it opened way back in 1958. Red carpet, leather booths, and ever-changing art on the walls, it’s homely and fun, and a great place to enjoy a hot coffee and amazing waffles. It’s also great for art-lovers and hosts regular exhibitions and shows.

Höfnin

Located on the harbor (which is what Höfnin translates to), you’re guaranteed sea views while you dine. This family-run joint focuses on classic Icelandic food with a modern twist. The menu is extremely varied, with a mix of fish and meat dishes, as well as vegetarian options. From traditional shellfish soup to reindeer fillets to burgers, you’re sure to find something you love. Plus, they have one of the best terraces in the area.

Frederiksen Ale House

If you’re not particularly concerned about trying out traditional Icelandic food, Frederiksen Ale House has a fine selection of modern pub meals. The food is good quality and the prices are extremely reasonable for Reykjavík. Plus, the lively atmosphere is great for enjoying their great selection of beer and cocktails!

Rok

To enjoy a variety of local taste sensations, Rok is a great little restaurant to check out. Rustic and cosy, it offers tapas-style dishes featuring everything from local fish to sizzling beef to sumptuous duck. There are also plenty of veggie options, as well as cheese and incredible desserts. Try 3 or 4 dishes, or check out one of the tasting menus to make your choice easier.

Iceland Food Tours

One of the best ways to discover the best Icelandic food is to take a food tour! Guided by a friendly local, you’re sure to find the most delicious bites and eat like the locals do. Here are some of the best.

Reykjavík: Half-Day Food Tasting Tour

What better way to discover the taste of Iceland than with a local? Your tour guide will take a small group of visitors around the city, tasting a variety of real authentic Icelandic food, from homemade ice cream to the freshest fish, and much more. This Reykjavík food walk gives you a chance to indulge in locally produced dishes at a variety of restaurants and local hangouts.

Reykjavík Food and Beer Walking Tour

A 3-hour tour through Reykjavík taking in some of the best boutiques, restaurants, and bars, as well as a wealth of other interesting sites. Your glass and belly will be kept filled as you learn about Icelandic culture through its intriguing dishes and drinks. Along the way, you’ll sample at least 9 dishes and 5 local craft beers. 

Reykjavík Local Food, Beer, and Chocolate Tour

Ideal for those with a sweet tooth, or food lovers looking to experience an array of delicacies. Your local guide will take you on a tour through the city, via chocolate factories, restaurants, and a brewery.

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