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Traditional Icelandic Food: Everything you need to know

Traditional Icelandic Food: Everything you need to know

icelandic food salmon

Iceland is famous for its rich fishing grounds and therefore delicious seafood dishes. But we look beyond the plate and tell you what Icelanders really love to eat, which dishes are offered mainly for tourists, and where you should go to jump on a culinary journey through Icelandic Food.

Verði þér að góðu!

Icelandic for enjoy your meal.

A little history of Icelandic Food

Exploring Iceland food also means discovering the history of Iceland. Because there was not a lot on this island you could grow and turn into a delicious meal. You could say, Icelanders have been on a thousand years of low carb diet. Records show that early settlers did not have any grains and therefore no bread. This stretched until the late middle ages. So what did they eat? 

icelandic moss
Dried Icelandic Moss by Nikolaydonetsk on Envato Elements

Icelandic moss (fjallgrös) was one replacement for grains – picked from mountains and then dried. It was then soaked before using in soups, puddings, as well as in tea. Another Icelandic food was dried seaweed, gathered in low tide, and used in several meals.

You see, Icelanders found a way to survive on whatever was growing on this meager island. Settlers brought livestock with them – sheep, cattle, pigs, horses, and goats, as well as chickens and geese. Eventually, farming became the main source of food in the 19th century.

iceland food dry fish
Fish drying on wooden racks on Flatey island

By the year 1300, fisheries had become more noticeable than agriculture. Fisheries remain one of the largest income sources for the Icelandic economy, responsible for a fair share of both the GDP and the nation’s export revenue. Read more about the History of Icelandic Food here.

Icelandic Food: Fish & Seafood

Harðfiskur (Stockfish)

Harðfiskur is dried fish and a popular road snack in Iceland. It Is mostly cod or haddock, dried by cold air and wind on wooden racks close to the shore. When Alli and I visited Flatey island, we saw the fish hanging on wooden racks close to the sea. Harðfiskur is unsalted and full of protein, therefore, very healthy.

hardfiskur iceland food
Eating Harðfiskur on my second road trip in Iceland in 2016

Lax (Salmon)

Salmon is very popular in Iceland. The salmon runs upriver from May to October. The country’s major salmon rivers are located west of the glacial river Þjórsá (Thjorsa).

Fun Fact: Prince Charles reportedly visiting Iceland in his childhood, favoring and fishing River Hofsá many times.

icelandic food salmon
Fried Salmon with Icelandic Barley. Photo by @WR36 on Twenty20

Alli’s favorite is Gravlax or grav(ad)laks. It is a nordic dish consisting of salmon that is cured using salt, sugar, and dill. However, we are not sure if you can find it in a lot of restaurants around Iceland.

If you can’t decide what fish to try, go for the Catch of the Day. You can pretty much be sure to get a traditional fish or the chef’s specialty.

Humar ( Lobster)

The Icelandic lobster is mainly caught off the south coast from April to September. US actress Sigourney Weaver says that her best meal on a trip was a lobster soup in Grindavík.

However, very popular in Reykjavík for lobster soup is the Seabaron – Sægreifinn. You can find the Seabaron by the old harbor in Reykjavík in a green-painted, old fisherman’s hut. At the moment (updated 21.01.2021), the restaurant is closed temporarily. We will update you when they hopefully reopen later this year.

Plokkfiskur (Icelandic fish stew)

Plokkfiskur is a traditional Iceland dish, mostly containing fish, mashed with potatoes. In the old days, Icelanders used leftover wish. Today this dish is mainly made with cod. The recipe is easy to follow, especially with this lovely Icelandic lady:

Plokkfiskur can be found in Icelandic Restaurants downtown. Some offer it in a variety with cheese on top. Traditionally, Icelanders eat it with Rugbrauð (rye bread) on the side. If you want to taste traditional Icelandic food, this is where you should start.

Icelandic fish stew is a tummy pleaser and perfect for cold winter days! Let us know in the comments if you have tried the recipe at home.

Whale Meat

The most controversial of all: According to the website of the government in Iceland: “Utilisation of whale resources is part of Iceland’s tradition and history, providing an important dietary component throughout the ages.

Commercial whaling was halted from 1986, following the IWC decision on a moratorium on commercial whaling. But in 2002 Iceland resumed commercial whaling.

dont eat whale iceland
Meet us, don’t eat us campaign. Photo by @skysd213 on Twenty20

Iceland exports around 95% of its harvested living marine resources and its economy is heavily dependent on such export. Fin whales are mainly hunted for export to Japan. In 2020, due to the global pandemic, no whales were killed in Iceland.

Consumption of whale meat declines in Iceland and the acceptance of whale hunting declines as well over the years:

They are not tasting an Icelandic tradition, because only 3% of Icelanders said in a recent Gallup poll they had eaten whale meat 6 times or more often in the preceding 12 months and over 82% of Icelanders never taste it. Why should you?

In an article of Feb. 1, 2016 by IcelandMag

Icelandic Food: Meet the Meat

Lamb

Did you know that Iceland has more sheep than people? While Icelanders use the meat for multiple dishes, with the wool they knit the famous Lopapeysur – Icelandic Wool Sweater. During the summer the sheep roam freely in zones to prevent diseases. Then in the autumn, farmers on horses get them back into the stall. The annual sheep round-up is a spectacular event to watch.

sheep in iceland
Sheep in Iceland, Photo by Luke Stackpoole on Unsplash

Popular around Christmas: Hangikjöt – Smoked Lamb

The literal translation for Hangikjöt is “hang meat”. In the old days, Icelanders would hang the meat and smoke it for preserving purposes. Mainly eaten around Christmas, Hangikjöt is served with Uppstúf (potatoes in a sweet caramelized sauce), green peas, and red cabbage from a can.

Kjötsúpa (Meat Soup)

Another popular comfort food for cold winter days. Even so that a few years ago, on the first day of winter, you would get free Kjötsúpa in downtown Reykjavík. The recipe is pretty straight forward, so give it a go and try it at home.

icelandic meat soup
Traditional Icelandic Meat Soup by vvoennyy on Envato Elements

You will find Kjötsúpa on the menu of a few restaurants, especially the ones offering traditional dishes. Icelandic Street Food, for instance, offers Meat Soup on their menu.

The famous Icelandic Hot Dog

Baejarins Beztu Pylsur, the famous hot dog stand downtown Reykjavík is a must-visit on your Iceland trip. And you are in good company: Starts like Kim Kardashian and even the former United States president Bill Clinton tried the famous hot dog.

If you want to order in Icelandic you say: “Ein með öllu” (One with everything).

For the brave: Hrútspungar and Svið.

As Alli describes in our podcast episode. These foods are part of Þorrablót, the Icelandic winter festival. Þorri is the fourth month of winter, according to the ancient Norse calendar. Blót means sacrifice – before Icelandic adopted Christianity the country worshipped the Norse gods.

Around this time (January – February) would eat Hrútspungar (Sheep Head), Svið (pickled ram’s testicles), and Hákarl (fermented shark). So all foods were preserved with methods of smoking, pickling, and fermenting.

Lundinn (Puffin)

Iceland is the returning breeding home to around 60 percent of the world’s Atlantic puffin. Although the population is declining, Icelanders still hunt the bird. In fact, Iceland is the only country where hunting Puffins is still allowed. That’s why you can see taxidermy puffins in the souvenir shops.

You will also find the puffin meat on the menu of several restaurants and fine dining experiences. Mainly a dish for tourists, similar to whale meat, many Icelanders do not consider puffin meat as a traditional Icelandic dish.

Icelandic Food: Bread

Laufabrauð: Traditionally eaten around Christmas, Laufabrauð is a thin, fried, flat cake served with butter. The round bread is decorated with geometric patterns and can be found in all supermarkets in December in Iceland.

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Flatkaka or flatbread is an Icelandic rye bread. Alli’s aunt used to call it: . The smokey taste of Flatkaka goes perfectly with Hangikjöt and butter. It also serves as perfect road snack with toppings like hummus, or butter.

rugbraud iceland bread
Icelandic Rúgbrauð by Myllan. Photo copyright by Myllan

Rúgbrauð is Icelandic rye bread. It is traditionally baked in a pot or steamed in special wooden casks by burying it in the ground near a hot spring, in which case it is known as hverabrauð or “hot-spring-bread”.

As we mentioned now a few times in our episodes, Zac Efron spends some time in Iceland and tries Rúgbrauð at Fontana, one of our favorite geothermal baths in Iceland. You can watch the whole episode on Netflix.

Icelandic Food: Sweet Stuff

Fact: The obesity rate in Iceland is the highest in Europe in the year 2020. We might have fallen again to the consequences of the per capita number. However, Icelanders love and defend their sweet tooth.

The famous candy aisle in Hagkaup, an Icelandic supermarket, offers a 50 percent discount on weekends. So you can see crazy stuff going down on weekends if you happen to be there. Kids and adults alike fill their bags with all kinds of sweets and candy. You could say, a true Icelandic tradition.

Lakkrís (Licorice)

Icelanders love Licorice (Lakkrís). You can find it in all sorts of chocolate bars, candy, snacks, and even in cough syrup. Bringing back Icelandic candy after your vacation is one of the best souvenirs. The Icelandic word for candy is nammi. Pretty easy to remember: nammi namm.

iceland candy
Popular Icelandic Licorice. Copyright photo by Appolo Lakkrís

Kleina and Snúður

Kleina the wanna be twisted donut: is basically fried dough. It does not have much in common with a traditional doughnut, but Icelanders love it.

Snúður is an Icelandic style cinnamon bun that comes in different varieties with caramel topping, chocolate sauce or pink icying which is super sweet.

Skúffukaka (Brownies): A very simple chocolate cake with coconut on top that you can find in pretty much every bakery. Everything in Iceland is very sweet with lots of sugar so be prepared for a real sugar shock.

Bragðarefur (The Flavor Fox) is a popular ice cream dessert obtained in most ice parlors (Ísbuð) in Iceland. The flavor fox is prepared with candy, fruits, and sauces mixed with the ice cream in a special mixer, then the ice is shoveled into a cardboard container with a ladle.

The Ísbuðin in Iceland are usually open until 11pm or longer so people love to get their ice cream kick after dinner. Don’t be surprised to see long lines both in summer and in winter.

Skyr

The most popular dairy food in Iceland. Low in fat and high in protein, skyr is similar to Greek yogurt but richer. Ísey Skyr is made with 3-4 times more milk than typical yogurt and with the original Icelandic skyr cultures.

skyr in iceland
Photo Copyright by Ralf Roletschek / Roletschek.at 

You can find Skyr in every store and supermarket. It comes in different flavors and we recommend getting started with vanilla or chocolate sprinkles. A perfect road snack that is healthy and makes you full at the same time. Let us know if you found your favorite skyr flavor.

If you travel to the South of Iceland check the restaurant in Hveragerði called Skyrgerðin. They have delicious skyr based dishes in a cozy atmosphere.

Cover Photo by @WR36 on Twenty20

Verði þér að góðu!

Steffi & Aðalbjörn
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