The Kavey Eats Guide to Icelandic Food

Iceland. What image does it conjure up for you?

Iceland (c) Kavita Favelle-172028

For me it’s a land of a thousand alien landscapes – not just one for every day but one for every hour of your visit. Exploring the island feels like location scouting for the next series of Doctor Who. It’s dramatic, intriguing, enchanting.

If you haven’t visited, it’s easy to fall back on stereotypes: Reykjavik’s enduring reputation as party central; the quirky nature of Icelandic musicians such as Björk; the shocking banking collapse of the noughties; the likelihood of a volcanic eruption (after Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 and Bárðarbunga in 2014); the friendly nature of the people (ranked a couple of years ago by the World Economic Forum as the world’s most welcoming to foreign tourists).

What most first time visitors are missing is an understanding of Icelandic cuisine and the local specialities to look out for and stereotypes come into play again – on learning of my impending visit, friends laughingly asked whether I was prepared for a diet of rotten shark meat and puffin.

Rest assured, there is plenty of great food to appreciate, alongside the more unusual.

 

Hangikjöt – Smoked meat

Fish and meat are preserved in a number of different ways in Iceland. Fermenting, pickling and drying are common, each one resulting in very different tastes and textures.

Hangikjöt (hung meat) is usually lamb, mutton or horsemeat dried in a smoking shed. Also often available are smoked goose, beef and occasionally puffin. Traditional hangikjöt is often boiled and served in slices with potatoes and peas. Newer tvíreykt (twice smoked) varieties are served raw in very thin slices, much like Italian prosciutto.

Many different types of fish are smoked from cod and haddock to salmon and arctic char. Also look out for smoked cod roe and liver and smoked eel.

Incidentally, don’t be surprised to see a bottle of cod liver oil on many a hotel’s breakfast buffet. In Iceland children are still given a dose daily to boost their Vitamin A and D intake.

SmokedGoose TwiceSmokedLamb-Iceland-2014-(c)KavitaFavelle-6552 HotSpringsBread SmokedTrout-Iceland-2014-(c)KavitaFavelle-6514

 

Harðfiskur – Hard dried fish

A popular snack in Iceland, white fish – such as cod, haddock, catfish or pollock – is dried and beaten into thin pieces. Traditionally, filleted fish were brined before being hung on outdoor drying racks and wind dried over several weeks. These days, modern temperature and humidity controlled refrigerators are often used.

Widely available in longlife packets, harðfiskur is eaten as it is or with salted butter. The trick, so it’s said, is to allow the hard pieces to soften in your mouth before chewing.

HardFish-Iceland-2014-(c)KavitaFavelle-142453

 

Humarsupa and humarhala – Lobster soup and lobster tails

When Icelanders talk about humar (lobster) they’re referring to the European lobster species Nephrops norvegicus, more commonly known as langoustine, scampi, Dublin Bay prawn or Norway lobster. The waters around Iceland are rich in humar; humarsupa (lobster soup) is a popular way to serve it.

In Reykjavik, simple seafood shack Saegreifinn (Sea Baron) is lauded for its lobster soup, a rustic dish of flavourful broth, a few remnants of celery, pepper and tomato and some well-cooked chunks of lobster meat. But the lobster soup I recommend seeking out is an altogether richer version from Fjorubordid, a restaurant in Stokkseyri on Iceland’s south west coast, just 37 miles from Reykjavik.

It’s not just about the soup, though. If you’re a lobster fan, don’t miss out on a big plate of lobster tails, simply served with melted butter and a flavoursome dipping sauce. Fjorubordid‘s offering is a very good option, cooked in spiced garlic butter and served in the pan, with an addictive sweet brown dip on the side. Use your bread to mop up the pan juices. Also worth visiting is Humarhöfnin restaurant in Hofn who grill their langoustine grilled in butter, parsley and garlic and serve with their black magic sauce.

LobsterTails-at-Humarhöfnin-Iceland-2014-(c)KavitaFavelle-141351 LobsterSoup-at-Fjorubordid-2-Iceland-2014-(c)KavitaFavelle-181539

 

Hvalkjöti – Whale meat (and other exotic meats)

Many meats eaten in Iceland are not widely eaten elsewhere and hence seem rather exotic to visitors.

Reindeer were not introduced to the island until the late 18th century; some still live wild in eastern moorland areas. Reindeer meat is available all year round, but is an expensive delicacy.

Horse meat is commonly eaten in Iceland, enjoyed both fresh and smoked.

Waterfowl such as puffins, cormorants and gulls are rich in fish oil and often soaked or boiled in milk to extract the oil before curing or further cooking.

Probably most controversial is whale meat, which engenders strong emotions for many. Minke whales are not considered endangered and most whale meat consumed in Iceland today is from this species. Read up on the issue ahead of your visit and make up your own mind on whether to try this local speciality.

Other items of interest are unusual cuts of more familiar animals; súrsaðir hrútspungar are boiled, cured and pressed ram testicles; blóðmör is a blood pudding made from lamb’s blood and suet and lifrarpylsa is sheep’s liver sausage.

DriedHorse-Iceland-2014-(c)KavitaFavelle-6551

 

Hverabrauð and rúgbrauð – Hot springs bread

Hverabrauð (hot springs bread) is a traditional dark bread baked using the natural heat of Iceland’s hot springs. A dense rye dough sweetened with molasses is placed in small ovens that are dug into the ground in areas of natural hot spring activity. The geothermal heat and steam surging up through the ground slowly bake the dough over 12 to 24 hours. The finished bread is much like German pumpernickel, but often has a subtle sulphuric taste. Hverabrauð is dense, dark, moist and sweet and particularly good with butter and smoked fish or meat.

The area around Lake Mývatn is very active, geothermically, and known for its local hverabrauð though you can find it across the island. In areas with less volcanic activity, rúgbrauð (rye bread) is slow cooked in a sealed pot.

One word of warning, eating too much of this delicious bread is said to cause flatulence; the reason for its rather mischievous nickname of þrumari (thunder bread)!

LocalHotSpringOvens-at-Mývatn-Iceland-2014-(c)KavitaFavelle-7726
Hot Spring Ovens near Mývatn

 

Kæstur hákarl – Fermented shark

Iceland was settled by immigrants from Scandinavia, an area with a rich tradition of preserving foodstuffs. Abundant fish from the waters around Iceland together with meat from domestic farm animals were preserved during the warmer months for sustenance during the cold and dark winters. In Norway, salt preservation was common but that tradition didn’t last long in Iceland; a shortage of firewood precluded the quick creation of salt by boiling seawater over fire. Instead, Icelanders preserved meat by fermenting it in whey, an acidic by-product of the cheese industry.

Fermentation not only preserves the fish and meat but has a strong impact on the taste of the food, creating a strong umami-rich flavour. Of Iceland’s fermented fish and meat products, kæstur hákarl aka ‘rotten’ shark is probably the best known and the most feared.

You can find it in local supermarkets, and on a few restaurant menus. But be warned – food writer and blogger MiMi Aye deems it the worse thing [she’s] ever had in her mouth’ and eloquently describes her throat contorting and constricting ‘in a desperate attempt to regurgitate the chunks of fetid fish’.

meemalee - icelandic rottenshark
The cubes in this Image by MiMi Aye

 

Kjötsúpa – Lamb soup

The original Norse and Viking settlers of Iceland brought with them cattle, pigs, goats, horses and sheep. Most of these stocks developed in isolation on the island and today, the local breeds provide superb meat and dairy products.

Icelandic lamb in particular is excellent. Modern restaurants serve delicious lamb steaks, grilled and served plainly to show off the quality and flavour. Also popular, especially in colder months, is kjötsúpa which can be either a lamb soup or a stew, depending on how much the liquid is thickened.

 

Lakkrís and marsipan – Liquorice and marzipan

When it comes to sweet shop favourites, it won’t take you long to notice that Iceland has a bit of a liquorice fetish. Pop into any supermarket, grocery store or petrol station shop and you’ll find shelf after shelf of different liquorice treats from familiar liquorice shoelaces, wheels and whips to liquorice toffee and chewing gum, liquorice foam octopuses and even liquorice flavoured chocolate bars.

Marzipan is also a much loved sweet, featuring in chocolate bars, cakes and biscuits.

For the ultimate Icelandic confectionery experience, track down a bar of Nóa Tromp – milk-chocolate covered liquorice filled with a sweet marzipan and coconut cream.

 

Pylsa – Hotdogs

An Icelandic pylsa is much like a hotdog anywhere in the world – frankfurter sausage, white bun and condiments – but it’s the condiments of choice that make it a little different. Order your hotdog með öllu (with everything) and you’ll get a double dose of onions – crispy fried ones and finely diced crunchy raw onion, both scattered generously underneath the frankfurter. On top of the sausage, vendors squirt zigzags of ketchup and mustard plus a third condiment that is more of a surprise: remúlaði. Remoulade is a mayonnaise-based sauce most commonly served with fish but in Iceland it’s become a key hotdog condiment as well.

The most famous hotdog vendor in Iceland is Baejarins Beztu Pylsur, sold out of two mobile vans in Reykjavik but you’ll also find delicious hotdogs sold by fast food joints and petrol stations around the country.

HotDog-at-BaejarinsBeztu-Iceland-2014-(c)KavitaFavelle-7247 BaconWrappedHotDog-Iceland-2014-(c)KavitaFavelle-142840

Make Icelandic-style bacon-wrapped hotdogs at home.

 

Skyr

Similar in taste and texture to natural yoghurt, skyr is a cultured dairy product that has been made in Iceland for over a thousand years. It is essentially a fresh cheese; a small portion of the previous batch of skyr is added to warm skimmed milk to introduce the required bacteria, rennet is sometimes added too and the mixture is left to one side; once the milk has coagulated, it is strained through fabric to separate the solids from the whey. Like yoghurt, skyr has a slightly sour tang.

Traditionally, it is served with milk and sugar or stirred into porridge but today commercial brands sell flavours such as vanilla, berries and other fruits alongside the plain variety. It also features in local desserts such as cakes, pastries and mousses.

Skyr-Iceland-2014-(c)KavitaFavelle-141324

 

Svið and sviðasulta – Sheep’s head and brawn

Only for the brave, Svið is half a sheep’s head, singed to remove the fur, boiled and served rather starkly on the plate. Sometimes the meat from the head is removed, formed into sviðasulta (a pressed terrine of brawn) and pickled in whey.

This austere dish arose during a time when no part of a slaughtered animal could be wasted. These days, Svið is one of the key dishes in þorramatur, a buffet of traditional foods, often served during the mid-winter festival of Þorrablót. Sviðasulta is more widely eaten throughout the year.

If you’re keen to try svið, visit the Fljótt og Gott restaurant within Reykjavik’s BSI Bus Terminal.

meemalee _ icelandic sheepshead
Image by MiMi Aye

 

An abridged version of article was perviously published in Good Things magazine. © Kavita Favelle.
Thanks to MiMi Aye for her contributions.

Please leave a comment - I love hearing from you!
75 Comments to "The Kavey Eats Guide to Icelandic Food"

  1. Suelle

    Very interesting, Kavey – Iceland is on my list of places to visit!

    Liquorice is widely used in many Scandinavian countries, as it has a role to play in digestion, and makes up for the lack of fibre in traditional northern diets, where vegetables used to be scarce.

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    Oh how interesting. I knew that Scandinavian countries have a huge huge love of liquorice but had not heard about the digestive reason behind that!

    Reply
  2. Mamta Gupta

    I will concur with you in that Iceland does have some of the best food to offer, especially when it comes to fish and lamb. Some of the hotels we stayed at, had their own volcanic steam ovens, as shown in your photo, where they cooked anything from boiled eggs, breads to all sorts of meats. Breakfast tables were especially nice, with their dark breads, skyr and fruits.
    You have conjured up the pictures of things by now hidden up in my memory cells! Apart from food, their springs, steam or otherwise, mountains, plains and streams were breathtaking. streams

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    Nice to bring back your memories! We were lucky, don’t recall any big issues at the airport when we visited.

    Reply
  3. Mamta Gupta

    PS The only negative thing was the hugely overcrowded airport, barely coping with the arrivals and a nd large number of people who take transatlantic flights from there.

    Reply
  4. Danni Lawson

    I had the hard dried fish while I was there and the fermented shark. There are photos of my horror haha! Skyr is really tasty though, but as you say has a bit of a tang. Supoosed to be very healthy!

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    I decided, after my friend MiMi’s experience, not to bother with the shark!

    Reply
  5. Megan Indoe

    I must admit none of this food sounds good when you just read the name other than the lobster! But seeing the images really help them seem more appealing! One of my favorite things to do traveling is trying the local cuisine! I had no idea this is what people in Iceland ate!

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    Ha, I’m glad my photos are helping to show you how tasty (most of) this food is!

    Reply
  6. Candy

    Wow! That last photo of the sheep’s head is definitely for the brave. I grew up in Japan and have had some interesting food, but haven’t had anything quite like that. I like the sound of dried fish and hot springs bread. How interesting that the bread is made from the heat of the springs.

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    Yes, that’s from my friend MiMi Aye, a fellow blogger. I didn’t get to that restaurant though I’d have been interested to try it!

    Reply
  7. Nisha

    Quite a different cuisine than many other parts of the world and I am sure they must relish it. For me I could get myself to eat the Sheep’s head even if it is the last thing available 🙂

    Reply
  8. Chantell Collins

    I had heard that hot dogs were a big thing in Iceland and also about Skyr that’s it’s extremely delicious. Didn’t someone throw it at a politician once? I swear I remember reading that. Surprising to hear about licorice but I love the stuff too!

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    I don’t remember that story but I’m sure you’re right!
    And yes, hot dogs are everywhere!

    Reply
  9. Sandy N Vyjay

    Iceland is definitely a land of thousand alien landscapes. A great and interesting post for food lovers visiting Iceland. Iceland seems to have a lot of unique cuisines. Since we are vegetarians we can try out the yogurt. 🙂

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    Aah, you can find vegetarian meals there, there were some on the menus. But for us we tended to focus on the dishes that were more interesting to us, more local, whereas the veggie dishes were similar to that found elsewhere in the world. Hopefully a veggie would still be able to eat very well if they were to visit!

    Reply
  10. Sarah K

    Wow the cuisine is Iceland is so unique. I think out of everything I’d like to try the Hangikjöt (hung meat). The one that sounds like Italian prosciutto looks good!

    Reply
  11. Julie Cao

    I cannot believe there are fermented shark, whale and horse meat in Iceland. I always curious what they taste like but I do not know if I dare to try it. Lamb stew and lobster soup are two great dishes for a cold winter day, but never a sheep’s head.

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    Yep, but don’t forget that in our own home countries we eat things that those from some countries may consider equally strange.

    Reply
  12. Shane

    I had no idea Iceland had such a unique cuisine of it’s all. Can’t wait to try it all next year!

    Reply
  13. Jennifer

    Icelandic food is one of two things – terrible or excellent. Skip the fermented shark! But lobster soup, geyser bread with smoked arctic char, lamb and hot dogs are all a must. I gobble up as much of all those things, plus have Skyr for breakfast when I’m in Iceland.

    Reply
  14. Michele

    I watch a show on Netfix called Chef’s table and one of the places they hit is Iceland…. Its on my dream list to go and try! Ive never seen fermented shark…. that sounds so intriguing!!

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    I’m not sure that’s the best one to try to see how delicious Icelandic food is but for sure try it if you are feeling brave!

    Reply
  15. Diana

    I really want to visit Iceland at some point. But it’s probably best to visit during the northern lights which is September-October. It also sounds like a great foodie place.

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    For us, we wanted long light days so late August / early September was perfect but it meant there was only a very short night so not best for seeing northern lights. For me, it was more Iceland’s landscapes I wanted to see this time!

    Reply
  16. Sandi G

    Wow, this is such a handy article. I am adding Iceland to my bucket list and crossing my fingers I will see it someday ;-).

    Reply
  17. Bintu - Recipes From A Pantry

    Iceland is such an amazing country! I’ve tried the fermented shark, it tastes bitter but not as bad as you think. Skyr is lovely, like a thick yoghurt, We loved the amazing fish there, arctic ling was flaky, and fantastic and similar to cod. We are going back in te Summer

    Reply
  18. Iza Abao

    These are exotic dishes which I am not sure if I’d be willing to taste. I have watched an episode of Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods Iceland edition. He was able to taste rotten shark. He said that it smelt like ammonia but it tasted sweet and nutty. It takes a lot of guts to eat something like this.

    Reply
  19. kaveyeats

    I know, I hear you. For me the main issue is whether a species is endangered.

    Reply
  20. divsi

    Not much for vegetarians except the cheese and the Hverabrauð and rúgbrauð , but I’d visit Iceland any day, for its sheer natural beauty and diversity in landscapes, its a dream for any nature lover : from volcanoes, to springs, to caves, to waterfalls to glaciers! 🙂
    P.s: I’d survive on fruits for such views! lol

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    I must admit I didn’t look too hard for veggie options so I don’t know how difficult it is but you’re right about the amazing beauty!

    Reply
  21. Sally - My Custard Pie

    Exhaustive article Kavey and super fascinating. I’ve had sheep’s head in Turkey and it’s definitely not the worst thing I’ve ever eaten by a long chalk. I would urge anyone to try it. The worst food memory is my Mum giving us spoonfuls of cod liver oil so I can’t believe people eat it for breakfast!

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    You are right that it’s not as bad as other things I’ve tried and yes that cod liver oil is so so so horrible! 😂

    Reply
  22. Gingey Bites

    What a great article Kavey! I’d love to visit Iceland and there are plenty of things I’d like to eat on this list (some more than others!)

    Reply
  23. Rhonda Albom

    Normally I say I am one who is known to try just about any local foods, but I think you have pushed me beyond my limit. I hesitated a bit at the dried hard fish, but softening in my mouth first is a tip that I could try. But I do stop at whale meat always, and that sheepshead . . . I am not so sure I could try that. Although I did share a plate of fish heads with a host in Spain.

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    I understand, there are things I won’t try either! Not many but some!

    Reply
  24. Vicki Louise

    I’m a huge fan of seafood so I thought I’d love Iceland – but apart from the Lobster dishes I think I’d be a bit tentative to try the whale meat, fermented shark and hard dried fish. And don’t even get me started on the sheep head – it’s all a bit too ‘animal like’ still for me!

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    There’s plenty of great seafood though, so you’ll be fine with fish, crab, scallops and lobster…

    Reply
  25. Darlene

    Whoa! This looks like something out of a Fear Factor menu. I dont know if i can eat fermented shark and sheep’s head and brawn though. I think i’ll stick with the harmless seafood. Hehe. This is def not for the faint of heart and stomach!

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    There’s a lot that’s not scary too though, lamb, skyr, hotdogs, seafood, hot spring bread…

    Reply
  26. Megan Jerrard

    Icelandic cuisine is definitely exotic compared to much of the rest of the world! We usually rent apartments when we travel so we can save on eating out by visiting local grocery stores and cooking our own food. It was quite the amusing afternoon trying to translate ingredients and figure out what things were in Icelandic! Though I did pick up some Kæstur hákarl, and agree with your writer friend – worst thing I’ve put in my mouth lol I don’t know if I didn’t cook it properly but I don’t much care for fermented shark :D!

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    We didn’t stay anywhere self-catering on this trip so no chance to do any cooking, though I would have enjoyed that too! Glad I didn’t try the Kæstur hákarl myself!

    Reply
  27. kaveyeats

    I must admit, I’m not sure how easy it would be, outside of Reykjavik, to find veggie food. I don’t know for sure as I didn’t look but it seemed mostly meat and seafood.

    Reply
  28. Michelle @ Greedy Gourmet

    I’ve read recently that the Icelanders are a pretty horny and promiscuous bunch too! 😀 I would actually try most of the food above. I see Skyr recently hit supermarket shelves…

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    I can’t comment on that from any personal experience, though if I lived in a land that is completely dark through so much of the winter, I’d probably be looking for fun body-warming indoor activities to do too! 😉

    Reply
  29. Ren Behan

    This is a really fascinating read Kavey – what an interesting cuisine! I loved the sound of the hot springs bread until I got to the bit about the windy side effects 😉

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    I have to say, we didn’t notice any such effects when we tried the bread, but it’s one of those nicknames for a foodstuff that made me giggle!

    Reply
  30. Brianna

    I want to visit Iceland someday, but I wasn’t so sure about the food. I’m not a big fish fan. But I would definitely try the lobster soup, as well as the hotdogs and the skyr!

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    Most of the food is pretty standard fare that is the same or similar as that found in much of Europe, so you should be OK.

    Reply
  31. Becky

    Wow so many different types of food I’ve not heard of. I did try the shark and hot dogs but as I was travelling on a budget the others were a bit too expensive!

    I’m not sure I would ever feel right about eating whale. And the other one that saddens me is that they all eat puffins too. A definite no for me 🙁

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    I won’t eat any species that are endangered, that’s my firm rule. However, if a particular item is not endangered, I’ll consider it even if it’s not something I might normally want to eat.

    Reply
  32. Jess

    So much of this looks terrible ! Haha! Although Skyr is great ..we have that in the U.K. now. I’m against eating whale. I hear that’s just put in for tourists but the locals don’t actually eat it. I also wouldn’t eat Shark because I love sharks… also I don’t know about this one but many sharks are endangered. Interesting blog though !

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    Actually most of the food was delicious, only a few things that might be considered a bit… unpleasant by non Icelandic…
    And, I don’t / won’t eat endangered animals either.

    Reply
  33. kaveyeats

    Haa, not even the lamb, lobster and smoked salmon? And that rye bread is sooo good!

    Reply
  34. Castaway with Crystal

    OH! I had boiled sheeps head once! My friends ran a Persian restaurant around the corner and they did a traditional breakfast called “Kale Pache” which means head and legs. I literally ate brains, cheeks and tongue for breakfast one day. It was so hectic…

    Reply

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