What are the key characteristics of Icelandic food, and is it any good? Is it true that Icelanders only eat dried fish and fermented shark? What should travelers eat while visiting Iceland? Read on to learn everything about food in Iceland and the ingredients that make this nation's cuisine delicious.
In the past, resources in Iceland were few and far between.
The lack of sunlight, severely limited fishing and hunting options, and the island’s isolation under the Arctic Circle made the importation of goods and food items difficult at best.
For centuries, therefore, Icelanders maintained a simple diet that reflected the harsh natural circumstances in which they struggled to survive.
But surrounding Iceland is the bountiful North Atlantic ocean, and the country is blessed with fresh water and clean nature.
Technological advancements and geothermal energy utilization have now provided the possibility of using freshly-grown, locally-sourced ingredients year-round.
Even over the past decades, the nation’s cuisine has blossomed from its humble beginnings into a cosmopolitan affair.
In today's Iceland, you can find almost anything your culinary heart desires.
Restaurants around the country offer a wide variety of foreign and Icelandic dishes, inspired by the ingredients found in nature.
However, the Icelandic diet’s main elements have changed very little since the country’s settlement over a thousand years ago. Most popular dishes still involve fish, lamb, and Icelandic skyr.
But modern chefs have become more imaginative, infusing new ingredients with ancient recipes.
Photo from Golden Circle and Icelandic Food Tour
As an island nation, nothing has been more vital to these people's survival than fishing.
It not only put food on the table, but exports also helped transform the country from one of the poorest in Europe at the beginning of the 19th Century to one of the richest today.
Fishing, therefore, is an integral part of Icelandic culture and heritage.
Pictures of fish decorate Icelandic coins, and the country has even fought wars over fishing rights.
These examples show just how serious this nation takes its fish and the lengths it will go to protect its most valuable product.
Photo from Von Mathus
Before the turn of the 19th century, grain was hard to come by in Iceland. It needed to be imported from Denmark, making it too expensive for most Icelanders.
Whatever grain or flour they could get was put in gruel to make it last longer, and bread was considered a luxury.
This scarcity meant that instead of eating a piece of bread with a meal, as was the custom in neighboring countries, Icelanders ate dried stockfish.
Although people don’t eat it quite as much today, stockfish remains one of the most popular dishes of the old Icelandic tradition.
Photo by Þormóður Símonarson
This protein-rich food is only produced using fresh fish, mainly haddock, Atlantic wolfish, or cod that has been caught by angling using live or artificial bait.
After cleaning and deboning, the fish is hung up to dry. Traditionally, this was done outside, near the ocean, where winds blow salty air through the product.
This method takes about 4-6 weeks, but thanks to modern technology, the time can be shortened to 36-48 hours.
As refrigeration methods improved, fresh fish became more and more noticeable in the nation’s diet.
In the 1950s and 60s, Icelanders still ate fish every single day, with some opting for the dish for breakfast!
Today, Icelanders eat fish on average twice a week, and over half of the population consumes fish oil, or lýsi, at least four times a week.
Most restaurants in Iceland serve ‘fish of the day.’ The country is dotted with numerous seafood restaurants, serving mostly cod, haddock, salmon, and monkfish.
Today’s chefs are masters at creating excellent dishes, infusing the ocean’s bounty with herbs and spices found in Icelandic nature.
But aside from a great meal at a restaurant, you should definitely try out these items:
Harðfiskur or stockfish - can be purchased in any grocery store or at the Kolaportið flea market and is eaten as a snack, either straight out of the bag or with a good amount of butter spread on it.
Plokkfiskur or fish stew - a simple mix of white fish, potatoes, onions, flour, milk, and seasoning but recently, some recipes also include ingredients like chives, curry, bearnaise sauce, or cheese.
Humar or Icelandic lobster/langoustine - caught in the South Coast waters, langoustines are known for their tasty, tender meat. You can find it grilled, baked, fried, or even topped on pizza.
The settlers in Iceland were stubborn folks, which is perhaps necessary when choosing to live in a land of ice and fire.
For centuries, the people tried living their lives as they would back in Scandinavia, as a pastoral society, raising cattle and sheep and growing grain to harvest for bread and fodder.
The farming Vikings significantly impacted the Icelandic landscapes as wide-scale erosion began along with deforestation, which left much of the country barren.
Therefore, little could grow in Iceland except for a few hearty vegetables like potatoes, turnips, carrots, cauliflower, cabbage, and kale — but almost no grain.
Iceland was never a self-sufficient grain-producing country again. In some places, barley could be grown, but the yield was often very low due to the weather.
Photo from Von Mathus
After a period known as the ‘Little Ice Age,’ almost all grain cultivation in Iceland disappeared completely. It wasn’t until the 20th Century that grain farming began again, with barley making up most of the grain harvest.
But today, you can also find a few oat farmers around.
As virtually no grain grew in Iceland, it had to be imported, making it very expensive.
Ovens were almost unknown due to a lack of firewood. So, the only people who could afford bread were very wealthy.
In fact, the country didn’t have a professional baker until the early 19th Century.
Despite the lack of grain, ovens, and bakers, Icelanders still have a few signature loaves of bread they made whenever they could.
Right before Christmas, many families get together to make ‘Laufabrauð’ or leaf-bread. It’s a round, very thin flatbread decorated with leaf-like geometric patterns.
Families spend time creating beautiful patterns in the bread before quickly frying it in a pan. They then serve Laufabrauð with butter during Christmas dinner.
Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by Jonathunder
Another traditional bread is ‘Flatkaka,’ a thin, round, rye flatbread with a distinct pattern.
The tradition of baking flatkaka is believed to go back to settlement-times when it was baked on hot stones or straight on the fire’s embers.
This method helped create the bread’s signature spotted pattern. However, later, small but heavy cast iron frying pans were used instead.
If you visit the country, don't forget to try Icelandic rye bread or ‘rúgbrauð,’ a dark, sweet-tasting bread with a thick consistency and no crust.
Tradition dictates it is baked in a pot placed on the embers of a dying fire, then covered in turf and left to stand overnight.
Another way to make rúgbrauð is to bury the pot near a hot spring and let the geothermal heat bake the bread.
When this method is used, the bread is usually called ‘hverabrauð’ or hot-spring bread.
Rúgbrauð is perhaps best paired with fish (and an essential side with the aforementioned ‘plokkfiskur’ fish stew), but you can also eat it on its own.
Both rúgbrauð and flatkaka are delicious topped with mutton paté, butter, cheese, pickled herring, or smoked lamb.
Photo from Golden Circle and Icelandic Food Tour
In the 19th Century, sugar was introduced to the Icelandic diet, and for years, it was considered necessary nutrition.
At that time, ovens were more common, and there were even a few bakers around.
If you are visiting the country, you should try the traditional flatkaka and rúgbrauð bread. But you should also visit a bakery or a café to try these modern(-ish) treats:
Snúður - a cinnamon filled bread rolled covered in chocolate, caramel, or sugar glaze.
Pönnukökur or Icelandic pancakes - thin, crépe-like pancakes, usually served rolled up with a good amount of sugar or carefully folded with jam and whipped cream.
Rúgbrauðsís or rye bread ice cream - can be found at the Kaffi Loki café in Reykjavík.
Along with the fish, sheep have been the lifeblood of this nation since its arrival with the Vikings.
Its wool has kept us warm, and its meat has helped keep us alive through severe climate conditions.
The original settlers imported these animals, which have since developed in total isolation, unaffected by other breeds.
Therefore, the Icelandic sheep is sometimes called the ‘settlement breed.’
Though famous for its wool used in ‘lopapeysa’ woolly sweaters, the Icelandic sheep is mainly farmed for its meat.
Each spring, the sheep are let out of their pen to roam freely around the countryside, spending the whole summer grazing in the pesticide-free wilderness.
Since the climate prevents grain growth, the sheep live on grass, angelica, berries, and seaweed.
The meat thus requires little seasoning; it is tender and has a mild flavor.
Photo by Björn Árnason at Grillmarkaðurinn
Though you can find fresh meat in grocery stores and on restaurant menus, a highly recommended dish to taste when visiting Iceland is smoked Icelandic lamb or ‘hangikjöt.’
Before refrigeration, a popular way to preserve food was by smoking. It not only allowed the meat to last, but it also added flavors.
Hangikjöt or 'hung-meat' is named after the old tradition of smoking the meat by hanging it from a smoking shed’s rafters.
There are two main methods of smoking in Iceland, ‘birkireykt’ and ‘taðreykt.’
The material used in birkireykt is birch wood, while dried sheep dung is mixed with hay for taðreykt.
It is not just hangikjöt that is smoked this way. You can also find taðreykt-smoked salmon, sausages, and even beer.
Hangikjöt is usually boiled and served either hot or cold in slices.
It is a traditional dish served at Christmas, usually accompanied by potatoes in béchamel sauce, green peas, red cabbage, and ‘laufabrauð.’
According to a recent study, around 90% of Icelanders have this dish at least once during the holiday season.
Smoked, grilled, broiled, slow-cooked, in a kebab or a stir fry, you can find numerous Icelandic lamb variations throughout the country.
And as with the seafood, whatever you choose will surely be delicious.
But if you like to go native, there are a few things you should try:
Hangikjöt sandwich - in thin slices, hangikjöt is a popular lunch meat, served on sandwiches or a traditional ‘flatkaka’ bread.
Kjötsúpa or meat soup - made of the tougher bits of the lamb, hearty vegetables, and various Icelandic herbs. Great on a cold winter’s day.
Pylsa (pulsa) or a hot dog - often listed as the top thing to eat in Iceland, it is made from a blend of lamb, beef, and pork. Try ‘ein með öllu’ (with the works), and you’ll get the hot dog topped with crunchy deep-fried onions, raw onions, ketchup, sweet mustard, and creamy remoulade sauce.
Besides lamb, you can also find traditional meats in grocery stores and restaurants like pork, beef, and chicken.
However, don't be surprised if you see horse meat or even reindeer on restaurant menus.
You will likely come across some more items that might raise a few eyebrows on your travels around the country.
The puffin is Iceland’s most iconic bird and one which both tourists and locals love to see in the wild. So, many would find it strange that you can also find it on restaurant menus.
In the past, struggling coastal communities like Iceland had to use all of its natural resources to survive. This survival included eating these adorable little birds.
While the Atlantic Puffin is now protected by legislation in other countries, Iceland and the Faroe Islands still allow puffin hunting.
Thus, the puffin has been a part of both nations’ diet for centuries and is today considered a delicacy.
Iceland is the home of around 10 million puffins during the summer, with the Westman Islands archipelago hosting the largest breeding colonies.
Just 10 km south of the mainland, the islands hold around 20% of the world’s Atlantic Puffin population, making it the world’s largest puffin colony.
However, in recent years, the puffin colonies have started to decline. The decline is not believed to be because of habitat destruction or overhunting, but because of several failed breeding seasons.
Due to dwindling numbers of birds, temporary restrictions on hunting have been made to protect the species. Puffin colonies are highly monitored, so you don’t have to worry if you see puffin on a menu; it is still okay to hunt a few.
The meat from the bird is usually broiled or smoked, reminding some of pastrami.
Perhaps the most controversial food in Iceland is whale meat.
Whaling began in Iceland in the 12th Century with spear-drift whaling.
Spear-drift remained the primary method of hunting whales until foreign companies introduced the country to commercial whaling in the late 19th century, bringing new tools and technology.
The International Whaling Commission adopted a moratorium on commercial whaling that came into force worldwide in 1986.
Unlike Norway, Iceland did not officially object to the ban and stopped commercial whaling that year.
However, whaling for ‘research’ continued until it was stopped in 1989 after much pressure from abroad.
Both commercial and research whaling began again in 2006. The Icelandic Directorate of Fisheries now regulate it and grant a whaling quota of 200 whales, though that number has never been reached. In 2017, 17 whales were caught.
The Directorate allows whaling of both minke and fin whale.
Minke whale meat is sold to local restaurants and grocery stores, but fin whales are sold to Japan.
In the last couple of summers, no fin whales have been caught, and there were no plans to do so for future years.
In 2018 however, an endangered blue whale was caught by the private whale-hunting company Hvalur.
Guide to Iceland has taken a stand against whaling in Iceland and urges others to do the same to end this practice.
Whale meat is not an everyday food in Iceland. 65% of whale meat is sold to restaurants in Iceland, indicating that it is primarily marketed toward tourists, despite international opposition to the practice of whaling.
Though flavorful, recent research has shown that the meat of larger cetaceans contains large amounts of mercury, which, if ingested over a long period, can cause genetic mutations in fetuses.
In Guide to Iceland's opinion, one of the wonderful whale-watching tours, where you can meet these amazing creatures, is preferable to a whale-based meal.
Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by Schnee
At the National Museum of Iceland, you can see three jars filled with what appears to be grey rocks. But these are a leftover meal of ‘skyr’ from over a thousand years ago.
Skyr is a traditional dairy product that resembles yogurt but is technically classified as cheese.
When Vikings settled here, they brought with them the culinary traditions of their homeland.
These Norse dishes have evolved differently in each country since then, with each nation having its own variation.
But skyr seems to have vanished entirely in Scandinavia while flourishing here in Iceland. Today, you can even find it on shelves of foreign grocery stores.
The product is made by separating skim milk from the cream. The milk is then pasteurized, and live cultures from previous batches of skyr are added.
When the product has thickened, it is then filtered, and various flavors added, like vanilla or berries and more recently mango, coconut, and even licorice.
Skyr serves the nation as a meal at any time of the day and has done so for years.
However, it has also served as a symbol of protest in recent years when people have hurled it at the Parliament building in anti-government demonstrations.
Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by the blanz
Although you can find a whole range of culinary delights in Iceland, the nation has not forgotten the old ways of preparing food.
Still today, you can find traditionally cured meat in grocery stores and restaurants. Once a year, a midwinter festival associated with a selection of historical food is held throughout the country.
The traditional style of curing meat is what people often think of when they hear the phrase ‘Icelandic food.’
And it does sound scary; fermented shark, pickled ram's testicles, and boiled sheep heads sound more like something out of a horror movie rather than things you put on the dinner plate.
But these methods of preparing food were done out of pure necessity rather than for shock value.
Fresh food was rarely available during the winter months, so to survive in this desolate and severe environment, the people had to preserve their food.
Before refrigeration, methods like salting were used all over the world to preserve food.
To produce salt from the ocean, you need to let the water evaporate.
Evaporation can be achieved by letting the water sit out in the sunlight or placing it over a fire. However, Iceland has precious little sunlight and even fewer trees to burn.
The lack of vegetation also meant that animal products dominated Icelandic cuisine, and poverty prevented any part of the animal from being thrown away.
The meat and offal were preserved through the winter by using methods like pickling in fermented whey or brine, drying, and smoking, which gave the traditional country food its distinct flavor.
Thankfully, modern technology has replaced these old methods of storing food.
However, there are still holidays centered around the consumption of these traditional dishes.
One such holiday is Þorláksmessa; a controversial celebration is held the day before Christmas Eve.
Some state that Christmas doesn’t start until you’ve had the traditional dish of Þorláksmessa: a buried and fermented skate.
They don’t even mind the strong ammonia-infused odor that accompanies it. Others (understandably) avoid it like the plague. The taste, however, isn’t as strong as the smell, reminding some of salted cod. However, getting past the smell is quite a challenge.
Another festival that involves traditionally cured Icelandic food is Þorrablót, a mid-winter festival originally held to honor the Norse god, Thor.
From mid-January to mid-February, Icelanders gather, hold speeches, recite poems, sing, dance, and eat traditional Icelandic food. These dishes include, among others, boiled lamb heads, fermented shark, ram testicles, and slátur, the Icelandic version of haggis.
Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by Chris73
It is not uncommon for modern Icelandic families to get together and make their own slátur before a Þorrablót.
They make it from sheep’s blood or liver and kidneys, minced fat, oatmeal, rye, and spices.
Slátur is usually served with boiled potatoes and mashed turnips, and the leftovers are great with rice pudding topped with cinnamon.
There are a few restaurants and cafés in Reykjavík that offer a taste of traditional Icelandic food.
If you can, you should try and visit during the times of the Þorrablót festival, where you’ll find even more establishments offering these unusual treats.
Photo by Björn Árnason at Grillmarkaðurinn
Although some might look (and smell) scary, not all traditional Icelandic food tastes bad.
At Þorrrablót gatherings, you’ll always find harðfiskur stockfish, hangigjöt smoked lamb and skyr, as well as rúgbrauð and flatkaka.
However, if you are feeling adventurous, here is a list of a few items you should try:
Hákarl or fermented shark - Greenland shark is poisonous when fresh, but after being buried in a hole to ferment for 6-12 weeks, it can be consumed (if you can get past the smell).
Svið or boiled sheep head - surprisingly, it does not taste as bad as it looks. However, Icelanders always eat the eyes and tongue as well.
Hrútspungar or pickled ram's testicles - boiled and cured in whey.
From 1880, shortly after sugar-importation began, and up until 1950, sugar consumption in Iceland increased by over 710%! It appeared to be love at first sight (taste).
Since then, the nation’s sugar consumption has been a dentist’s dream.
Though now known to be (really) bad for you, Icelanders still have a hard time giving up sugar, and the country’s sugar habits can be described as extreme.
However, as bad as it is for you, it can be damn delicious.
It doesn’t matter if it is the dead of winter, with freezing wind blowing and snow falling from the sky, Icelanders will still eat ice cream.
You can find an ice cream parlor in almost every town in Iceland, with many located near a geothermal swimming pool, where it is a popular treat after a swim.
Soft serve ice cream is the most popular kind. But don't just get plain ice cream; dip it in in a hard-shell dip, usually made of chocolate, and then cover it in small-sized candy. This approach is known as ‘ís með dýfu og kurli.’
If you want to go extreme, order a ‘bragðarefur.’ This is when soft ice cream, usually vanilla, though some places offer other varieties, is put in a large container.
You’ll then choose three types of candy and/or fruits on display at the parlor’s counter (you can add an extra topping for an additional fee if you are feeling gluttonous).
The whole thing is then put in a large mixer, more candy is added on top, and voila! You’ll have the ultimate Icelandic ice-cream treat.
Browsing the candy aisle in supermarkets, you’ll notice that most Icelandic sweets contain salty licorice or ‘lakkrís.’
The most popular kind is chocolate-covered licorice, but you can also find strange combinations like licorice-powdered raisins, dates, and almonds.
Of course, there is licorice ice cream, which you can then have dipped in hard-shell licorice dip and covered with the licorice powder (although most would agree that’s a bit of an overkill).
This salty black treat has even made its way from the candy aisle into regular food. Now there is licorice salt, licorice sauce for lamb, and even licorice cheese!
The obsession began a few centuries ago when licorice, introduced to Iceland by Scandinavians, was used as a sweetener.
Icelanders had no honey and no sugar, so instead, they used this root to satisfy the country's sweet cravings.
Icelanders had no honey and no sugar, so instead, this root was used to satisfy the country's sweet cravings.
The root was also believed to help with cold, so it was used by Icelandic pharmacists who added it to cough syrups and lozenges to combat various ailments.
In the early 20th Century, wars and import restrictions deprived the country of foreign sweets.
Candy from abroad took another hit in 1971 when a now-debunked study claimed that Red Dye No.2 (a common ingredient in candy) posed a carcinogenic risk.
And so Iceland now manufactures its own sweets, often using (you guessed it) licorice.
Now you can get foreign sweets in Iceland, but the Icelanders still prefer their own salty candy. Love for licorice has reached the heights of the world’s love of bacon.
So, when visiting the country, ‘lakkrís’ is definitely something you should try.
Here are some of the nation’s favorites:
Draumur and Þristur - chocolate-covered licorice bars.
Opal - licorice lozenges that have been around since 1945.
Appolo Stjörnurúlla - a liquorice and marzipan roll.
Lakkrísrör - a licorice straw used to drink soft drinks, usually Appelsín orange soda or Coca-Cola.
Gammeldags Lakrids - pure, salty liquorice.
The settlers drank mead and ale, and for centuries, it was the most popular alcoholic drink in the country.
In the middle ages, when grain production in Iceland was dying down, imported beer became popular.
However, after importation restrictions from Denmark (who ruled Iceland at the time), it became cheaper to import schnapps and potato vodka, which became the drinks of choice for Icelanders.
At the turn of the century 1900, attitudes toward alcohol shifted, and a prohibition on all alcohol took place in 1915. The ban was partially lifted in 1921, thanks to Spain.
At the time, Iceland’s biggest export was salted cod, and Spain threatened to stop importing the product unless Iceland imported Spanish wine. So the ban was augmented, allowing red wine and rosé from Spain and Portugal.
However, it didn't take long for people to undermine prohibition. People smuggled alcohol in the country, and they passed around a popular home-brewed drink known as ‘landi.’
Doctors would prescribe patients alcohol in huge quantities, with wine for the nerves and cognac for the heart.
In 1935, spirits and all wine were allowed but no beer, which was believed to increase teenage drinking.
Another reason for the beer-ban was that beer was mostly imported from Denmark before the prohibition, thus associating it with that country.
Icelanders were fighting to gain independence from Denmark and so drinking beer was not considered patriotic.
With the rise of city break holidays abroad in the 1970s, interest in beer started to grow as people would visit pubs and bars on their travels.
Then finally, on March 1st, 1989, after a push from the public, beer was allowed in Iceland again.
The date is still known as Beer Day and is celebrated each year by opening up a beer or two.
To celebrate the end of the prohibition in 1935, the Icelandic government produced ‘Brennivín,’ a clear, unsweetened akvavit schnapps flavored with caraway.
The bottle contained a white skull on a black label to warn people of the high alcohol content, which earned the product the nickname ‘Svarti Dauði’ or ‘Black Death.’
Eventually, Iceland’s picture replaced the skull, but the black label became one of the nation’s most recognized brands.
The drink is considered Iceland's signature distilled beverage and is today produced by the Egill Skallagrímsson Brewery, which still uses the same old recipe and the trademark black label.
A handful of other companies make the drink, having improved the recipe and infused the caraway flavor with ingredients like angelica and dulse.
Beers from Borg Brewery. Photo by James Brooks at Flickr
In recent years, craft beers have swept the nation.
You can find high-quality Icelandic craft beers at the ÁTVR alcohol store and numerous bars around the country. You should try at least one.
Many distilleries in the country produce schnapps, vodka, or gin inspired by what they find in Icelandic nature.
Go to any cocktail bar in Reykjavík and get a cocktail with a liqueur made with ingredients such as birch, rhubarb, or crowberries.
But when visiting Iceland, you should check out these items (just remember to drink responsibly):
Opal flavored vodka shots - this is licorice alcohol! This drink is based on the popular licorice lozenges. You can also get one called Tópas, which is equally tasty.
Flóki Whiskey - Icelandic whiskey made only from Icelandic ingredients (including home-grown barley). You can even get it smoked ‘taðreykt’ (in sheep dung).
Brennivín - or Black Death liquor. It is customary to drink a shot after some fermented ‘hákarl’ shark (it helps get rid of the flavor).
With new times come new technologies and knowledge. Icelanders have learned to utilize the natural surroundings, especially geothermal energy, which can heat buildings.
The town of Hveragerði boasts of a few greenhouses that, using geothermal energy, can grow vegetables and even fruit all year round.
Travels abroad brought all kinds of ideas that, combined with traditional ingredients, created some incredible flavors.
In Reykjavík city, you’ll find many multi-cultural restaurants and a large local food scene in the style of the New Nordic Cuisine movement. The emphasis is on purity, simplicity, and freshness.
Fine dining restaurants, gastropubs, brasseries, bistros, and burger joints are aplenty in Reykjavík, and vegan and vegetarian restaurants are rising.
The old bus station Hlemmur has recently been transformed into a food hall where you can sample some of the best food Iceland offers.
However, if you travel outside the city, you will find more traditional restaurants serving mostly fish and lamb.
But those who are picky eaters should always be able to find a pizzeria or a fast food joint (not McDonald's, though).
So, if you plan to travel to Iceland, you don’t have to worry about eating shark or ram’s testicles. You’ll have plenty of food to choose from, and you are sure to find something to your liking.
What are the foods you’d most like to try most? Or, if you have already visited, what did you think of Icelandic food? What was your favorite? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.