Calling all foodies! Part of experiencing any culture is sampling the local food and seeing what people eat daily in your destination. With Iceland food, you’ll discover cuisine that is just plain delicious, hearty, and filling. You'll also find things Icelanders eat which foreigners might consider strange, unusual, out of the ordinary, or even downright unappetizing. Let's find out what to eat in Iceland so you know which traditional dishes, desserts, and breakfast foods are the best.
An introduction to Icelandic cuisine
When you hear the words “Icelandic cuisine”, what springs to mind? Perhaps you picture some warming fish stew or another seafood dish. Or maybe you have absolutely no idea what eating in Iceland entails. If you're getting an Iceland car rental, you'll want to know what to eat.
Many of the dishes in Iceland are designed to fill your belly and leave you satisfied. This is because with our harsh cold climate, lighter fare like a simple salad just won't do the trick when hiking waterfalls. Icelandic food is rooted in the Scandinavian cuisine that arrived here when the Norse Vikings settled the island in the 9th century.
Traditional Icelandic food
There's a strong focus on only the freshest, locally-sourced ingredients rather than being specifically Icelandic or using traditional ways of cooking. You'll find many dishes made with seafood, lamb, bread, dairy, and potatoes as those are our most abundant natural resources.
A traditional dish could be something like Icelandic lamb meat soup or smoked lamb.
What to eat in Iceland
You'll find plenty of fine dining establishments and even a Michelin-starred restaurant in downtown Reykjavik. When you go to restaurants that specialize in traditional Icelandic cuisine, you'll find an assortment of dishes. Everything from smoked Arctic char with freshly baked charcoal bread to grilled free-range Angelica lamb.
Icelandic lamb meat soup (Kjötsúpa)
Kjötsúpa is by far one of the tastiest items on a list of the best food in Iceland. It's essentially traditional Icelandic lamb soup and is a must-eat meal during those really cold days and winter months. The stew is made with chopped vegetables, pieces of lamb, and a savory broth of Icelandic herbs. It's one of those Icelandic culinary traditions that you just might want to take back with you and recreate at home.
Fish: A staple food in Iceland
One of the things people immediately associate with food in Iceland is fish. This makes sense, given that we are an island completely surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean. We've relied on the sea for both our livelihood and sustenance for generations. It's natural that fish and seafood are a big part of the Icelandic diet and play a starring role in Icelandic cuisine.
The seafood you eat in restaurants is freshly caught and extremely flavorful. Some of the best food in Iceland consists of fish-based dishes like fish stew, smoked salmon, and the catch of the day.
Of the over 340 species of saltwater Icelandic fish, the most popular ones to eat are:
And below are two of Iceland's most well-known traditional fish-based things to eat.
Traditional Icelandic fish stew (Plokkfiskur)
Soups are pretty standard fare in Iceland, so it's no surprise that one of the country's favorites is a fish stew. What originally began as a way of using up leftovers has evolved into a signature dish of its own. Just throw in some boiled cod or haddock with potatoes, milk, butter, and onion, and you've got your very own plokkfiskur.
Dried fish jerky (Harðfiskur)
If you're a fan of beef jerky, then you'll probably like Icelandic fish jerky as well. It's more of a snack than a meal it's eaten with bread and a little bit of butter. It's usually made from dried cod (but sometimes haddock or wolffish) and you'll find it everywhere.
You may also be pleasantly surprised to find your fish dishes accompanied by rúgbrauð. This is traditional Icelandic dark rye bread but with a twist. It was originally baked by putting the dough into wooden casks and steaming it in the ground close to a hot spring. This unconventional baking method is now usually done in the kitchen using a baking pan.
Hot Dogs: Iceland’s unofficial national cuisine
Something that surprises many visitors is how much we Icelanders love our hot dogs. This Icelandic version of fast food is found everywhere. From gas stations to Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur hot dog stand in downtown Reykjavik, you can't escape Icelandic hot dogs (pylsur).
The most popular way to get it is one with everything or the works. Ask for “eina með öllu” so it comes with a variety of delicious toppings. Not only do you get chopped onions and crispy deep-fried onions, there are also some special sauces. In addition to the remoulade sauce, sweet relish, and sweet brown mustard, there's also the special Icelandic ketchup. This condiment is made with naturally sweet apples rather than tomatoes and sugar.
The price ranges from $4 to $10 (3€ to 9€) depending on what type of hot dog you get.
What am I eating exactly?
Of course, not all traditional Icelandic food is a comforting lamb stew or a scrumptious Icelandic hot dog. Iceland definitely has its fair share of what could be considered culinary disasters. In fact, late chef and international food connoisseur Anthony Bourdain dubbed one traditional Icelandic food “the world’s most disgusting food”. Sounds appetizing, right?
If you're wondering what to eat in Iceland and want to try something new, here are some odd dishes to consider.
Boiled sheep’s head (Svið)
While not the most commonly eaten dish in Iceland, you will occasionally see people enjoying it. This dish originated from back when Icelanders couldnt let a single part of an animal go to waste. If you want to try something original and different, this definitely falls under that category.
Sour ram testicles (Hrútspungar)
If you thought you were getting off easy with a boiled sheep’s head, not so fast. Ram testicles are another strange Icelandic dish you can try. They are cured in lactic acid, which gives them a sour taste. Icelanders are fans of this dish, so why not give it a try?
Fermented shark meat (Hákarl)
Hakarl is one of Iceland's national dishes which will give even the most adventurous palate or run for its money. If eating rotten shark meat sounds less than appetizing, that's probably because it is. This questionable Icelandic food has been described as rancid, toxic, and the world's most disgusting food. It's definitely not for the faint of heart, and will have even the most experienced foodies eyeing it with suspicion.
It's made with Greenland shark that has been cured using a special fermentation process. It's been hung out to dry for four to five months before it makes your way to you. Hákarl has a fishy taste and a very pungent ammonia smell. Perhaps the strong odor is why we usually only eat it once a year at Christmas time.
The controversy about eating whale meat
If you think hákarl Is one of the Iceland foods to avoid, I don't blame you. Some others you should definitely steer clear of are whale meat and puffin.
Icelanders don't really eat these foods; the restaurants mainly keep them on the menu for the tourists. They are novelty foods so I understand the draw, but it also increases the demand every time someone orders it. At the same time, most Icelanders are against the whale hunting required to put minke whale on your dinner plate. There's even a Meet Us Don't Eat Us campaign to raise awareness for tourists who may not know any better.
You'll also see smoked puffin on the menu, and people's feelings about it are generally the same as whales. We think it’s better to see them on a bird watching expedition than to eat them at a restaurant.
Obviously, no one can stop you from eating whale or puffin if you're absolutely determined to do so. Just keep in mind you're going against the wishes of the people in the country that is kindly hosting you.
Iceland's national liquor: Brennivín
Iceland's “burning wine” actually a clear, unsweetened schnapps and is considered the national liquor of Iceland. It's called the black death (svartidauði) due to its distinct, killer taste. If you've ever had Scandinavian Akvavit, Brennivín is a bit like that. It's made using fermented potatoes or grains with caraway for flavor. You can't miss the unmistakable black and green bottle of our signature distilled beverage.
A typical Icelandic breakfast
After a night of being plied with Brennivín shots, you'll want to get something solid and tasty into your stomach. Bakeries and cafes are extremely popular, especially in Reykjavik. All of the yummy aromas of mouth-watering baked treats will soon have you forgetting about fermented shark and black death.
If you're staying at a hotel, they'll probably have a nice spread of cheeses, cold cuts, and other breakfast items. You'll want to fill up before you hit the Ring Road.
Skyr: Icelandic Yogurt
You might see Skyr, a white dairy product known as typical Icelandic yogurt. It's a high protein, healthy breakfast food that Icelanders just love, and you can dress it up with honey, berries, or other sweeteners. It's also great if you're traveling on a budget as a tub of Skyr is not super expensive.
Kleina: Fried Breakfast Goodness
One of my favorite things to eat in Iceland are kleinur. These little pieces of deep-fried dough sprinkled with powdered sugar dip perfectly into that mug of coffee in your hands. They are the perfect way to start your day and you may find yourself returning to Sandholt bakery day after day to get your kleina fix.
A typical Icelandic breakfast can include thick oatmeal (hafragrautur), Skyr with jam, bread with butter, and cod liver oil.
Iceland foods: Desserts
Of course our list of Iceland foods wouldn't be complete without an honorable mention of some Icelandic desserts. One of the best parts of visiting Iceland will no doubt be sampling some of our sweet treats.
Skúffukaka (chocolate brownies), hjónabandssaela (baked rhubarb cake), mondlukaka (Icelandic coffee cake), and Jólakaka (sponge cake) are all crowd favorites.
Traditional dishes from Iceland at Christmas
There are certain foods that we eat in the winter at Christmas. Hangikjöt, smoked lamb, marinated herring, creamy langoustine soup, and rice pudding are all found on Icelandic tables during the Yuletide season.
Iceland Food: The Best Traditional Cuisine
Now that you're an expert on food in Iceland, which ones are you interested in trying while visiting? Or if you've been, what do you think is the best food in Iceland? Icelandic food and cuisine are something you won't soon forget after your trip.