The weeks leading up to our trip in Iceland, we were asked numerous times, “What do people in Iceland eat?”. So we thought we would dedicate a post to Icelandic food, keeping in mind there is much more to their cuisine than what we can cover here.
A good day starts with the yogurty goodness of Skyr (pronounced “skeer”), a high protein snack that is reminiscent of Greek yogurt. Though apparently it’s not a yogurt at all, but a fermented cheese. You’d never know though, and it’s delicious.
So delicious that Icelanders have found numerous uses for it. Not to be just eaten on its own for breakfast, but also as a dipping sauce (“skyr-nnaise”), drink, and even to create desserts (skyr mousse):
Shane literally ate a minimum of one per day.
Creatures of the Sea
Being an island, the Icelandic diet is rich in seafood. Arctic char, sea trout, smoked salmon and blue ling are all tasty options.
Their lobster was the best; we had both lobster soup for lunch and then our favorite: lobster tails baked in garlic for dinner.
It gets more interesting with controversial dishes like the minke whale. Though Icelanders reassure us it’s not endangered, we know some people would still choose not to eat it. We won’t get into the controversies here, but we sampled some when it was given to us as part of a tasting platter.
The whale was served like a steak (though it can also be skewered or seared), cut into thin strips with a purpley center. It tasted quite good when done right, with a weird blend of a red meat-like texture but a fishier taste. Kind of like Ahi Tuna.
Though we didn’t get to try this, harðfiskur (which is basically a fish jerky that some spread butter on), is a popular snack. Apparently it’s quite smelly, so I warn you in advance before you open it in the small confines of your rental car. I also wish I had gotten around to trying pickled herring as it’s supposed to be delicious here!
Creatures of the Air
Someone once said that eating a puffin is like eating Hello Kitty, and it’s probably true. It’s hard to eat such an adorable little bird. But once again we tried it as part of an Icelandic food sampling menu.
It was served to us as a very dark meat in thick cuts, reminding me of liver. It was not my favorite, but Shane seemed to enjoy it scraping every last bit off my plate.
Creatures of the Land
I already mentioned how sheep run rampant here. So it’s no suprise that lamb is a main meat dish. Icelanders say their lamb is the best in the world, and I wouldn’t be suprised if that were true. The lamb we had was perfectly tender and delicious!
Part of that is also probably because they are allowed to frolic the land freely eating grass and playing in the midnight sun. That’s bound to create good meat, don’t you think?
Another thing we didn’t try is a dish of boiled sheep head (svið), which is literally served to you that way on a plate. It is debrained, but involves eating the eyes, ears, and tongue. Some people apparently eat Icelandic horses also, but those seem just way too majestic and magical to eat. There is also the option of fermented shark, but since Anthony Bourdain (“No Reservations“) said it was the worst thing he ever, ever ate, that’s gotta be telling you something.
Hot Dogs & Fast Food
Did you know that the hot dog is like the national Icelandic food? It’s a popular quick and cheap snack. And it is quite tasty, because here they add in lamb giving it a distinct flavor and a somehow almost crunchy bite.
The “best hot dogs in town” apparently come from Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, where we were told to get one with “everything”: brown mustard, ketchup, raw onions, deep fried crunchy onions and a remoulade. We did as we were told since when Bill Clinton came in and ordered one with only mustard, he was made fun of in the paper for weeks. Thanks to him, you can now order one “Clinton Style.”
Sweets & Treats
I’ve already described in much detail the Icelandic love of sweets. Like much of Scandinavia, black liquorice varieties are common. This made buying treats a real challenge for me because they like to sneak that flavor into everything. I sniper-eyed the ingredient labels of every purchase.
In the end we found a few favorites, including marzipan sweets and a bar of chocolate “with lentils” (ie. smarties)!
It’s said that you can find an Icelander at an ice cream shop at any hour of the day or night. We joined in the fun, eating different ice cream flavours (beer flavored or vanilla with Mars bars jammed in), or even their popular ice cream crepe.
Alcohol & Drinks
Did you know that beer was banned in Iceland until 1989? Now it’s back, and it’s taken the island by storm. Beer and microbrews are aplenty.
More traditional to Icelandic culture is the potato based spirit, Brennivin, flavoured with caraway seeds. Though it’s traditionally used to cleanse the palate after eating fermented shark, we had it as a shot to start our dinner meal and thought it was quite good.
By the way, alcohol is notoriously expensive so the global advice is to load up on your arrival at the duty free shop at the airport. Other than that, there are only government-regulated vinbúð liquor stores that are often hidden away in some corner of town and open for limited periods of time.
Outside of liquor, I hear Icelanders are coffee addicts and the #1 consumers of Coca Cola. Is that why they get bottles made for them specifically by name?