Exploring Icelandic Cuisine | An Icelandic Food Guide Skip to content

Exploring Icelandic Cuisine: An Icelandic Food Guide

By Lára Borg Lárusdóttir

A Plate of food in Reykjavík city, vegan food
Photo: Food in Reykjavík.

Iceland is the land of fire and ice and breathtaking landscapes. Nonetheless, the country is not only a paradise for nature explorers but also the perfect destination for food enthusiasts with the wide range of Icelandic food.

The culinary scene is as diverse and contrasted as the unique nature of Iceland. The country is packed with different cuisines worldwide, with a swarm of global influences. Nevertheless, the local culinary traditions and authentic Icelandic food instil a deep sense of pride and familiarity. Many restaurants offer a unique mix where an international touch is intertwined with local flavours.

From the lively Reykjavík to the calm countryside, the culinary scene in Iceland is sure to leave a lasting impression on any food enthusiast. Below, you will read more about Icelandic food culture, must-visit restaurants in Iceland and explore traditional Icelandic foods.

A delicious dish of Icelandic cuisine
Photo: The Reykjavík Food Walk

 

Popular traditional foods in Iceland

The traditional foods in Iceland are quite diverse, and ingredients are often sourced locally from surrounding landscapes. Among other popular ingredients in Icelandic dishes are lamb and fish, and locally grown vegetables are often used to complement the dish.

Many have heard of the traditional foods in Iceland that are not so much loved by all, such as fermented shark, which were commonly eaten centuries ago. Those foods will be discussed further below. However, many traditional Icelandic foods are very popular in modern-day society today and can be purchased widely.

 

Harðfiskur – Dried Fish

Harðfiskur, or dried fish, might not sound like a delicacy, but it has been a popular snack amongst Icelanders for centuries. The dried fish is usually cod, haddock or wolffish and is full of protein and nutrients. It is often enjoyed with a pinch of butter on top to make it incredibly delicious. Harðfiskur can be purchased in most supermarkets and corner stores countrywide.

 

Flatkökur – Flat Bread

Flatkaka, or flatbread, is a type of Icelandic bread made from rye flour. The flatbread became an Icelandic staple over a century ago, at a time when rye flour was the only affordable flour available. Now, it is an Icelandic classic, often enjoyed with butter and cheese, smoked lamb or smoked Salmon. Read here Icelandic Review’s article on Brynja and Tóta, the Icelandic mother-daughter duo that have been making flatkökur together for over 30 years.

A photo of flatkökur being prepared on a stove
Photo: Preparing flatkökur

 

Rúgbrauð – Sweet Rye Bread

Rúgbrauð is Icelandic rye bread, originating from Denmark over a century ago; however, it is vastly different from Danish rye bread. The Icelandic rye bread tastes very sweet and might taste like cake to some. The rye bread is more often than not enjoyed with cheese and butter, and around the holiday season, many choose to eat it with herring on top, creating a Danish-style open sandwich.

 

Kleinur – Twisted Doughnut

Kleina, often referred to as a twisted doughnut, is a national classic. Inviting guests for “Kaffi og Kleinur”, or coffee and twisted doughnuts, is a widespread phenomenon and still a prevalent saying today, even though no kleinur might be in sight. Although locals classify it as a traditional Icelandic food, kleinur may originate from Germany and they are known by different names throughout the Nordic countries. Even so, they are still an Icelandic classic and are enjoyed by all ages.

 

Smoked and Cured Salmon 

Icelandic fish is a high-quality product processed to the highest standards and enjoyed by people worldwide, including salmon. Smoked or cured salmon has become a delicacy in Iceland as it is one of the best in the world. The cured salmon is most often enjoyed over the holiday season and is usually eaten on toast with dill sauce.

 

Icelandic Lamb 

For centuries, Icelandic lamb has been a staple of Icelandic food culture and is enjoyed in many shapes or forms. The most popular ones are the leg of lamb, smoked lamb and lamb soup.

 

Lambalæri – Leg of Lamb

Icelandic lambalæri, or leg of lamb, is the typical Icelandic Sunday roast enjoyed by locals and visitors of all ages. The leg of lamb is often prepared using locally sourced herbs and served with gravy and potatoes. 

 

Hangikjöt – Smoked Lamb

Hangikjöt, directly translated as hung meat, is a popular traditional delight in Iceland. The curing method of the meat originates from the Viking era in Iceland. At that time, meat was preserved by hanging it up in smokehouses. Hence the name hung meat. Over the holiday season, the smoked lamb is served with a variation of bechamel sauce, green peas and red cabbage. However, the smoked lamb can also be enjoyed as a bread topping, and placing it on top of the Icelandic flatbread has become one of the classics of Icelandic foods.

A photo of smoked lamb, or hangikjöt, on a plate
Photo: Hangikjöt

 

Kjötsúpa – Lamb Soup 

The Icelandic kjötsúpa, or lamb soup, is a common way of serving lamb. The soup is prepared using lamb shanks boiled with vegetables and herbs, which is the perfect warm meal on a cold Icelandic winter day.

 

Skyr

Skyr is a traditional Icelandic dairy product. While it’s technically a fresh, cultured cheese, it’s eaten much like yoghurt and is a very common and popular food in Iceland. It has a thick and creamy texture and can be used for smoothies and desserts or enjoyed on its own. Skyr can be found in most supermarkets and convenience stores in Iceland.

 

Unusual Traditional Icelandic Food 

As mentioned, other traditional Icelandic foods, such as fermented shark, have been available for centuries but, to this day, are certainly not loved by all. 

Many of these traditional foods were in the past meant to be eaten through the late winter and were therefore preserved in fermented whey, or mysa in Icelandic. Most of the below-mentioned foods have an acquired taste and could be more appealing to the eye. 

A midwinter feast called Þorrablót is held in late January, celebrating unusual traditional foods. There, smoked, fermented, salted, and dried meats are found on the buffet along with the Icelandic brennivín, or black death, used to wash down the unique assortment of foods. 

See here Iceland Review’s recent article on Þorrablót. 

 

Hákarl – Fermented Shark 

Hákarl, the infamous fermented shark, is native to Icelandic cuisine and is loved by some but hated by most. Preparing hákarl involves a complex process to make the shark meat edible. After catching the shark, the meat is buried in a shallow pit, allowing it to ferment. Afterwards, the meat is hung to dry and cut into bite-sized pieces. The taste is an exceptionally acquired one, with a strong ammonia-like scent, but it is more easily washed down with Icelandic brennivín. 

 

Svið – Sheep’s Head

As odd as it may sound to many, svið is a type of Icelandic traditional food using the sheep’s head. It originates from a time when farmers couldn’t let any part of the animal go to waste, so the head was boiled and served with mashed turnips or potatoes. Svið is not a typical food in Iceland today; however, it is one of the foods some enjoy at the midwinter feast Þorrablót. 

 

Skata

Another ammonia-like scented food, skata, is usually enjoyed only one day a year on December 23. Skata is a type of fermented flat fish called Skate and is an Icelandic Christmas tradition, leaving the city smelling of ammonia. The story behind eating the stinky fish Skate the day before Christmas Eve comes from people not eating meat the days leading up to it. Therefore, the Skate was a perfect option with its natural preservative, similar to the fermented shark, and consequently, the tradition of eating it on December 23 was born. 

Many restaurants serve Skate in the month of December, such as Messinn, Þrír Frakkar and The Fish Market. Many hotels also offer a buffet in December, serving Skate and other Icelandic delicacies worth trying. 

A plate with the fermented fish Skata, turnips and potatoes
Photo: A plate with Skata, turnips and potatoes

 

Lifrarpylsa – Liver Sausage

Lifrarpylsa, a traditional Icelandic liver sausage, is a classic reflecting the country’s dedication to utilising every part of the animal in the past. The liver sausage is made from a lamb or sheep’s innards and is crafted from a blend of liver and other organ meats, such as heart and fat. The liver sausage can either be served warm or cold, and it is common to enjoy as a side to rice pudding. 

 

Hrútspungar – Sour Ram’s Testicles

Hrútspungar, or sour ram’s testicles, does most likely not sound appetising to the majority and is not a common or popular type of food in Iceland. This unique type of food is also a testament to Icelanders utilisation of the whole animal in the old days. The testicles undergo a fermentation process often involving a combination of whey, brine and herbs, giving it a unique sour taste. Some supermarkets sell sour ram’s testicles. However, you are more likely to find them at one of the Þorrablót feasts. 

 

What are the Must-Visit Restaurants in Iceland?

The Icelandic culinary scene not only brings about a number of fermented and smoked meats but also offers a wide range of cuisines filled with different flavours and preparation methods. The restaurant scene in Iceland has grown and evolved a great deal in the last decade, and today, there is an abundance of high-quality restaurants both in and outside Reykjavík city.

 

Slippurinn 

Slippurinn Restaurant was opened in 2012 and is an exceptional restaurant located on Heimaey, one of the Vestmannaeyjar Islands. The restaurant is housed in an old machine workshop used to service old shipyards but hadn’t been used for 40 years before being taken over by Slippurinn. The restaurant is family-run, and they opt to support the local community by sourcing ingredients from local fishermen, small producers, and farmers. Slippurin’s menu changes from week to week as they make sure to source the freshest ingredients available at each time. An interview with the restaurant’s chef and owner, Gísli Matt, can be read in Iceland Review’s magazine here.

 

Dill 

Dill restaurant offers guests a unique fine dining experience with eccentric dishes and cooking methods inspired by the Icelandic landscape. In 2017, Dill restaurant won its first Michelin Star, which was, moreover, the first one awarded in Iceland. The restaurant’s chefs prepare the dishes according to the New Nordic cooking philosophy and dedicate themselves to sourcing the freshest ingredients.

 

Rok 

Rok Restaurant was opened in Reykjavík in 2016 and offers guests a wide selection of small dishes in a fine casual style. The restaurant’s design was one of the focal points, along with getting the best possible ingredients for the dishes. The high-quality dishes and the restaurant’s interior make it a fun dining experience in a relaxed environment.

 

Messinn

Messinn is a seafood restaurant located both in Reykjavík centre and in Selfoss town in southern Iceland. The restaurant’s name, Messinn, is the Icelandic name for the food hall on fishing vessels, where the chef onboard cooks for the fishermen. The menu is quite simple, and their speciality is to serve freshly cooked Icelandic fish pans, which are perfect for sharing, although other seafood options are also available.

 

Friðheimar

Visiting Friðheimar is a unique experience as the space combines a tomato greenhouse with a restaurant specialising in creating delicious dishes made from, you guessed it, tomatoes. Friðheimar is a family-run business where you can get a tour of the facilities and learn how the process of growing tomatoes works. Afterwards, you can enjoy a lovely tomato soup with freshly baked bread. Friðheimar is located near the town of Selfoss, in Bláskógabyggð area. 

People visiting Friðheimar tomato farm
Photo: Visitors travelling the Golden Circle, visiting Friðheimar tomato farm.

 

Vegetarian and Vegan Food in Iceland

Though traditional Icelandic food is mainly known for fermenting, smoking, and curing different kinds of meats, there is no shortage of vegetarian and vegan options. 

Many greenhouses can be found around the country where different fruits and vegetables are grown all year round, making Iceland self-sufficient for many species. The Icelandic natural spring water and the country’s abundance of geothermal energy have made this possible despite harsh climates. Therefore, many restaurants cook from fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables.

 

Most restaurants offer vegetarian or vegan options, as in recent years, it has become a prerequisite for restaurants, with a growing number of people opting for plant-based alternatives. 

Many cafes and restaurants offer an entirely plant-based menu, mainly in the capital area, such as the ones named below.

 

Chickpea 

Chickpea is a family-owned street-food-style restaurant specialising in vegan and vegetarian food, where the main ingredients are chickpeas. The restaurant is at Hallveigarstígur Street in Reykjavík.

 

Garðurinn Cafe 

Garðurinn Cafe is both a lunch restaurant and a cafe located at Klapparstígur Street in Reykjavík. The cafe serves homemade vegan and vegetarian dishes and cakes.

 

Mama Restaurant

Mama is a plant-based restaurant and a wellness space in the centre of Reykjavík. The restaurant is dedicated to creating a healthy and vibrant space for people to nurture their minds and souls, along with supporting the community and protecting the environment. The space not only serves delicious vegan and vegetarian dishes but also offers music and art gatherings for visitors.

 

Sónó Restaurant and Cafe

Sónó is a vegan and vegetarian restaurant and cafe serving different dishes depending on the freshest available ingredients. They procure Icelandic herbs from the wild nature of Vestfirðir fjords and grow them in the restaurant’s garden and greenhouse. 

 

What are the Best Sweets to Try Out in Iceland

Besides being an intriguing experience for food lovers, Iceland is also a paradise for the sweet tooth. Every supermarket and convenience store offers an extensive selection of Icelandic candy, most of it being chocolate, where candy enthusiasts can bring delicious pieces of Iceland’s sweetness home. 

Icelandic candy combines the indulgent nature of Icelanders together with creativity, craftsmanship and the high quality of the food and sweets culture. But what are the must-try-out candies in Iceland? Most of Iceland’s most popular and well-known candies are crafted from chocolate, liquorice, or a combination of the two. 

 

Nóa Kropp 

One of Icelanders’ favourite candies is Nóa Kropp, small crispy corn centres covered with delicious milk chocolate. The candy is made by Iceland’s oldest candy producers, founded in 1920 and has since then provided locals and visitors with irresistible candy and other confectionery.

 

Icelandic Liquorice 

The Icelandic liquorice should not go past anyone visiting the country as it comes in all shapes and forms and can be found nearly anywhere. The liquorice in Iceland is unlike those in other countries. Therefore, many of those who usually are not liquorice lovers would go to the ends of the earth for the Icelandic one. 

The most common type of liquorice is Appolo lakkrís, which can be found in liquorice and marzipan bites, rolled-up liquorice, liquorice laces and more.

Licorice also often tends to be combined with chocolate, which is a national favourite. There amongst is Þristur,  a candy that contains a unique filling of soft caramel and liquorice bits covered in chocolate. Another chocolate-covered liquorice delight is Eitt Sett, a milk chocolate bar and a liquorice ribbon combined.

 

Omnom 

The chocolate company Omnom Chocolate is Iceland’s only bean-to-bar chocolate maker and has won multiple awards for its craftsmanship. Omnom has prioritised creating chocolate delicacies using the highest quality ingredients possible, with cocoa beans originating from Madagascar, Tanzania and Nicaragua. The chocolate bars can be found in most stores in Iceland and in their own chocolate and ice cream shop located at Hólmaslóð Street in the centre of Reykjavík.

 

What is Iceland’s National Dish?

The national dish of Iceland is hákarl, or fermented shark, which has long been an important source of energy and protein for Icelanders. The processing methods of the shark are quite eccentric as it’s fermented for months in the ground and afterwards hung up to dry, making the process a waiting game. The rich cultural and historical sides of the fermented shark and its unique processing method have made it an important cornerstone of Icelandic food culture. 

After months of waiting for the national delicacy to be all set for tasting, the result leaves you with a strong-smelling treat with an acquired taste. But fear not, as the fermented shark is often served with sweet Icelandic rye bread and a shot of brennivín, the Icelandic schnapps, taking you on a rollercoaster of unique flavours. 

 

Are there any Food Tours in Iceland?

Yes, you can definitely take food tours in Iceland! These tours offer a fantastic opportunity to explore the unique and delicious cuisine of Iceland while also learning about the country’s culture and history.

 

The Reykjavík Food Walk Tour participants explore downtown Reykjavík through local cuisines that you might not have come across normally. The walk takes participants on a stroll around the city, visiting six unique restaurants with a fun and knowledgeable local guide.

The Reykjavik Food Lovers Tour is an entertaining and educational food tour of Iceland’s traditional foods. The tour lets participants get a sense of Iceland’s history while eating exciting and delicious food.

The Reykjavik Beer and Booze Tour brings participants on a journey of the fun history of beer and alcohol in Iceland. On top of that you will enjoy a sit down and drink with the locals of Reykjavík.

The Icelandic Sweet Tooth Tour is as sweet as the name implies, as participants are taken on a journey and sampling ofIceland’s most popular and beloved sweet treats such as pastries, sweets and more.

 

Whether you’re a food enthusiast looking to expand your palate or simply curious about Icelandic cuisine, a food tour can be a delightful and informative experience during your visit to Iceland. See all available food tours in Iceland here. 

Related Posts