Icelandic Fish Dishes

smoked fish fillets

Everything You Need To Know About Icelandic Fish Dishes

Iceland is surrounded by ocean, so you’d expect fish to feature pretty heavily in the national cuisine and it does.  If you’re looking out for a good seafood restaurant you’ll be spoilt for choice and if you like trying unusual traditional dishes you won’t be disappointed. Here’s a brief guide to help you to tell your skata from your hákarl. It also contains suggestions on some of Iceland’s best seafood restaurants and lots of useful info on national seafood festivals; where to fish and other top tips to make sure you get to try some of the best fish dishes during your stay in Iceland.

Freshwater Fish

Pieces of salted mackerel and red onion
Pieces of salted mackerel and red onion

If you like freshwater fish then you’ll be impressed with the quality of what’s available.  Whether you’re ordering brown trout, Arctic char or salmon you can expect delicious, fresh fish all year round.  The emphasis is likely to be on simple, modern cooking methods using locally sourced ingredients.  Let’s take a closer look at some of the different species of freshwater fish found in Icelandic inland waters.  All spend some of their life-cycle in the sea.

Silungur- trout is readily available during the summer months. There are two varieties of trout, found in the wild in Iceland.  These are urriði -brown trout and bleikja – Arctic char.  Arctic char has a distinct orange color, similar to salmon.  Delicious baked, grilled, sautéed or poached; the flavour is slightly more subtle than that of its close relative, the salmon. It tastes almost sweet and is very high in healthy omega-3 fish oils.

Some rainbow trout has been released into some lakes and rivers but rainbow trout are not believed to breed in Iceland. Lax- is Icelandic for salmon. If you want to be sure that your Atlantic salmon is wild, then lookout for villtur on the menu. Farmed salmon will be described as eldislax. Does wild salmon taste better than farmed salmon?  That’s a matter of personal taste.  Wild salmon is likely to have a meatier texture and a richer flavour than the farmed variety. Whilst you’re in Iceland, look out for wild salmon marinated in herbs, served as rich, tender, melt-in-the mouth graflax.

Áll – eel might be something you’ve never tried before.  Smoked eel, a particular local delicacy can be tender and moist and the Icelanders certainly know how to bring out the best of this fascinating fish.  If you’re planning a trip to the majestic south-east of the island, you’ll find that eel features heavily on the menu.

Seafood

Cod Steak Icelandic Dish
Cod Steak Icelandic Dish

You’ll find an abundance of delicious salt-water fish and seafood on the menu in any of Iceland’s excellent fish restaurants.  Whether its cod, haddock, plaice or any other popular variety you can be pretty certain that it was likely to have been caught that very morning and cooked to perfection by people who know what they’re doing.

You’ll certainly enjoy Þorskur (cod), fresh from the morning catch.  The fillets great, and will be cooked by chefs who really how to get the best from the fish, but fillet is something you can eat at home.  If you’re feeling adventurous, why not try something more traditional?  The cheeks and tongues were once the most prized part of this fish.  Look out for imaginative cooking methods in good seafood restaurants and you might be surprised by the fine flavour and texture. Cod also forms the base of some pretty tasty Icelandic soups.

Other locally sourced fish which is available in abundance include skötuselur (monkfish), which has a wonderful meaty texture, and also worth a try are ýsa (haddock), steinbítur-(catfish), sild (herring) , halibut, shrimp, oyster and mussels. If you try just one seafood dish during your stay, you‘ll probaly want to order leturhumar (langoustine), which will usually be translated on the menu as lobster.  This mouthwateringly-good local catch is celebrated in the Höfn annual lobster festival (see Seafood Festivals below). The tails are delicious served grilled, in butter or cream sauce with lots of garlic.

Minke whale deserves a mention, although most of the whale eaten in Iceland is consumed by tourists –it’s not traditionally something the locals like to eat. Think carefully before ordering this dish.  Perhaps you’ll be happier going on a whale-watching trip rather than eating one of these majestic, intelligent animals. Follow this link if you want to know more about the minke whale and to know how to find whale-friendly fish restaurants in Reykjavik.

Dried Fish Specialities

Icelandic typical dried fish (Hardfiskur) with charcoal bread and butter
Icelandic typical dried fish (Hardfiskur) with charcoal bread and butter

If you’re looking for a more unusual fish dish, and something really authentic, then you might give any of the following a try:-
Harðfiskur is a type of dried-out fish jerky.  It has its origin in the days of the Vikings when fish was dried out to preserve it for a nutritious food to eat during the long winter months and on sea voyages.  Today without doubt, it’s most Icelander’s favorite snack.  They will snack on it while watching movies in preference to potato chips or popcorn.  They’ll pack it in their lunch boxes.  They love it so much they’ll even take supplies with them when travelling abroad!  Unlike most snacks it’s actually healthy- being packed with omega-3 fish oils and vitamins.  What’s not to like?

Harðfiskur comes in a range of varieties.  It can be made from haddock, cod or ocean catfish.  You might even find it made from dried-out arctic char or flounder. Traditionally it is made by hanging the filleted fish outside to dry naturally in the North-Atlantic sea breeze.  Mass-produced harðfiskur is much more likely to have been dried out using an oven or a fan.  If you order it in a restaurant, look out for a variety that has been dried naturally in the wind, as this is going to taste more flavorsome and have better texture.   As a snack it can be bought in strips or in crispy bites.  The locals like to eat it with butter or coleslaw, although it’s a great little snack all on its own, and if you’re new to this culinary experience you’ll probably see the added butter as unnecessary.

Skata is skate, an unusual-shaped fish with a long tail and a kite-shaped body.  In Iceland, cured, fermented skate is served on 23rd December, when the feast day of Saint Thorlak (Þorlákur) the patron saint of Iceland, kick-starts the Christmas celebrations.  This fermented fish has a very strong flavor. Beginners will probably prefer eating freshly-caught skate.

Hákarl is shark meat, usually from the Greenland shark.  This dish isn’t for the fainthearted.  The flesh of the Greenland shark would be toxic if eaten fresh so this fish has been cured using a fascinating process which involves burying it in the sand for up to three months and then hanging it out to dry for several months, depending on the season.  It’s often served in cubes on cocktail sticks.  The taste is pretty strong-you might say pungent, with a hint of ammonia.  If you’re a novice you’ll probably be warned to pinch your nose while you pop it into your mouth as the smell is even more extreme than the taste.  If you’re into authentic experiences you might want to wash your hákarl down with a shot of fiery Brennivin schnapps. This dish is often part of the menu for Þorrablót, the traditional mid-winter festival where it may be accompanied by speeches and poems in honour of the Norse god Thor.

Hákarl comes in two varieties.  There’s the chewy and reddish glerhákarl (“glassy shark”) from the belly, and white and softer skyrhákarl. We wouldn’t necessarily recommend eating either if you’re not in the habit of eating strong, pungent foods.  It makes the strongest blue cheese you’ve ever tried seem mild in comparison.  Chef Gordon Ramsay is reputed to have spat his out.  James May asked for more.  Enough said.

Saltfiskur is fish, usually cod which has been dried out and preserved in salt.  Look out for the sun-dried version which has a yellow color and a stronger flavour than the indoor-dried or salted version.  Before being eaten, saltfiskur is soaked in water.  There are then many different ways in which it can be cooked.  Traditionally it is served boiled with melted butter.

Traditional Fish Dishes

Mackerel sandwiches tapas with red onion
Mackerel sandwiches tapas with red onion

During the times of the Vikings and for hundreds of years afterwards, much of the fish and other seafood eaten in Iceland involved food which had been preserved, by curing and other methods.  This has undergone significant change over the last 50 years or so.  One thing for which modern, Icelandic cuisine cannot be faulted, is the emphasis placed on fresh, locally- sourced ingredients.  Hot-houses now guarantee a year-round supply of fresh, locally grown vegetables and herbs such as dill and chives which go so well with many fish dishes.   Unless you choose to eat preserved fish, the fish you are served is likely to have been happily swimming about that very morning.  The amount of fish eaten by Icelanders may be one of the reasons for the local people’s exceptional good health and happiness.  Did you know that Icelanders have one of the longest average life-spans in the world, as well as much lower rates of depression than most Europeans? Maybe all that omega-3 fish oil is doing the locals some good.

Here are some Icelandic seafood classics, which you’re likely to see on the menu during your stay.

Plokkfiskur – Fish Stew

Literally translated as “mashed fish”, this rich and filling fish stew features white fish, such as cod, halibut or haddock.  Traditionally it was made with potatoes and onions in a milk-based roux sauce.  Modern Icelandic Chefs are putting a twist on this dish, adding carrots, celery, cream and even white wine.  Served with brown bread and butter, and topped with fresh chives, it makes a delicious, hearty lunch which will keep you going all afternoon.

Humarsúpa – Creamy Langoustine Soup

On a cold day, what better way to warm up than a bowl of creamy, spiced lobster soup?  The broth for this soup is often made from langoustine shells and fish skin.  It will certainly come with chunks of fresh langoustine meat and a splash of cream (although some chefs now use coconut milk).  What makes this dish extra special is that the aromatic spices added, give the soup a wonderful curried kick.  In Iceland this dish is often eaten as part of the traditional Christmas Eve feast.

Icelandic Haddock

Fresh baked haddock is delicious served in a white sauce flavored with cheese and nutmeg.  You might also try it baked in a sour cream and dill sauce.

Smoked Eel

Smoked Eel in smokehouse
Smoked Eel in smokehouse

Hot, smoked eel is considered a delicacy by many of the locals.  The fish has a strong, almost meaty-flavor.

Seafood Restaurants

Eating out in Iceland isn’t cheap, but you may be surprised to discover that some of the best cuisine isn’t that much more expensive than many of the less fancy restaurants.  Chefs in the top restaurants have given traditional Icelandic cuisine a modern twist which certainly won’t disappoint. You can expect some pretty outstanding fine-dining experiences both inside and outside the capital.  Here’s a guide that can help to ensure that you get to sample some of the finest sea-food Iceland has to offer during your stay.

Our Top Picks in Reykjavik

Reykjavik- Top-End

Torfan Lobsterhouse

Housed in a historic building, which was once owned by Stephen Gunnlaugsson, the Head of State, this elegant, nouvelle-cuisine sea-food restaurant is of the best places to try Icelandic lobster (langoustine).  The restaurant has changed its name from Humarhusid, and is under new management, but don’t worry the lobster is as good as ever.  Try the seafood feast for a gourmet experience you won’t forget or the wonderful, creamy lobster soup. They do a special afternoon deal from 14.00 to 17.00 of lobster soup and a glass of wine.  What better way to relax after a morning’s sight-seeing?

Þrir Frakkar

This inspired seafood restaurant offers one of the city’s finest dining experiences.  It has been run by the chef Úlfar Eysteinsson and his family since 1989. Try the plokkfiskur (fish stew) or the salt cod.  This restaurant is reputedly a favorite of Chef Jamie Oliver.  The lunch menu is good value.

Dill

Elegantly housed in the local culture house, Dill is probably the best place to try New Nordic cuisine.  The inspired menu includes a good selection of imaginatively-prepared sea-food as well as other dishes.  The building is surrounded by a garden, from which the kitchen sources fresh vegetables and herbs.

Fiskfélagið  (Fish Company)

Located in a beautifully designed cellar in the heart of the city, the Fish Company restaurant guarantees an unforgettable fine-dining experience.  With your chef as the driver, and your waiter as the guide, you will be invited on a culinary trip around Iceland, or, if you prefer, around the world.  The Iceland trip is the most popular menu, but whichever dishes you choose, your taste-buds are in for a treat.

Restaurant Reykjavik

If you love sea-food, you’ll love the experience of dining in the historic wooden Pier House.  The sea-food buffet gives you a chance to savor a range of different Icelandic sea-food dishes. If you love the location, why not round off your meal with a trip to the Ice Bar next door?

Sushisamba

Lovers of sushi and fusion food won’t be disappointed here.  Try the Icelandic Feast for a good value gourmet treat.

Reykjavik- Budget

Pieces of fish pollock
Pieces of fish pollock

If the cost of eating out is an issue, you will find that some of the Top End Restaurants listed above do cheaper deals at lunchtime than in the evening.  But if you want to eat out in the evening a little cheaper then try all or any of the following:-

Icelandic Fish and Chips

If you’re on a tight budget, what better way to sample the local catch than to experience what’s on offer at this superior bistro-style eatery?  In fact, the food here is so good, that you might want to make a reservation whether you’re on a tight budget or not.  Using the freshest of fish and other locally-sourced ingredients, the menu offers so much more than your standard English fish and chip shop.  Much thought has gone into the ingredients.  They use spelt flour in the fish batter and fry the fish in oils high in healthy omego-3 rather than the usual vegetable oils.  Fancy a skyr-based dip with those potato wedges?  Maybe try the rosemary and apple, or why not try the truffle and tarragon dip?  They also do some really good salads.  If you’re a fish lover then this place is definitely worth a visit.

Sea Baron

Don’t expect elegant décor in this shack in the old harbour village. But you can expect excellent lobster curry soup and delicious grilled spears of marinated fish In Sea Baron. Whether you want to try salmon, cod, scallops or catfish, you can be sure that it will be fresh and delicious.  They even do vegetarian options.

Laekjarbrekka

If you want to try traditional seafood in a lovely setting, without breaking the bank then you’ll enjoy a visit to this beautifully restored 180-year old house, packed full of character.  The “catch of the day” can be good value and the cooking is all excellent.

Our Top Picks Outside Reykjavik

Fresh Sushi in Reykjavick Iceland
Fresh Sushi

If you’re travelling outside of the capital, there are some remarkable dining experiences to be had if you know where to find them.  As well as spectacular scenery, you can expect some remarkable cuisine ranging from excellent traditional fare to fine New Nordic cuisine.

Outside Reykjavik -Top-End

Hotel Búðir

Set in the wilds of Western Iceland, a couple of hours drive from Reykjavik, the setting of this hotel/restaurant will take your breath away.  The focus of the menu is not just on seafood, but the cooking has been described as “the Mecca of Icelandic cuisine”.

Lava-Blue Lagoon

If you’re spending a day in the geothermic pools at the blue lagoon (around 45 minutes’ drive from Reykjavik), you’ll experience some wonderful seafood dishes.  Try the chef’s sophisticated take on cod soup, or maybe the fillet of cod in lobster sauce.  The view is as spectacular as the food.

Rub 23

Rub 23, is a sushi, fish and meat restaurant to be found in a bright red building in the center of Akureyri. Although this is not technically a seafood restaurant, they do some great seafood dishes.  In the evening enjoy the seafood platter or maybe some Arctic char.  If you’re on a budget, they do some pretty good sushi take-away options.

Outside Reykjavik – Budget

Salthouse Restaurant- In Grindavik

South of the airport and just a few minutes’ drive from the Blue Lagoon, you’ll find this lovely atmospheric log house,  which was the first restaurant in the country to specialize in the humble salt fish and raise  this once  humble dish to new heights.  The fish couldn’t be fresher.

Tjöruhúsið – In Isafjordur

If you’re passing near Isafjordur during your Icelandic road trip, this delightful little wooden fish restaurant is well worth a visit.  Try the fish soup or the monkfish in blue cheese sauce.

Við Fjöruborðið in Stokkseyri

Locals will tell you that the langoustine served here is the best in the world.  Give it a try.  It just might be true.

Seafood Festivals

Langoustines, Icelandic fish dish
Langoustines

The Great Fish Day – Dalvíkurbyggð

If you’re in Northern Iceland on either the first or second Saturday in August then why not join the locals at the harbor in Dalvík to celebrate The Great Fish Day.  This is a wonderful opportunity to participate in a giant seafood buffet, and best of all, the food is absolutely free!  Here at the harbor side you’ll have an opportunity to sample examples of traditional and modern fish cookery.  You’ll have a chance to experience the longest barbecue in Iceland, serving fish burgers and more.  As well as wonderful seafood, there are all kinds of fun entertainment to help make this a really fun day out.  The entertainment varies from year to year but expect street performances, exhibitions of interesting fish varieties, boat trips and much more.  The thousands of visitors to this fun festival bring this otherwise sleepy fishing village to life.  Whilst you’re in Dalvík, you might want to check out the local folk museum, where there’s a fascinating exhibition of a local giant, measuring all of 7ft 7” (2.34 m) high!

The Great Herring Festival – Siglufjörður

The Great Herring Adventure Festival takes place over the bank-holiday weekend at the start of August.  The town of Siglufjörður had its heyday in the 1940’s and 50’s when herring fishing brought prosperity to the area. The festival is a nostalgic reminder of those times.  As well as all sorts of fun, fish-based activities, you can also expect a great amount of singing, dancing and general carousing.  This is a truly enjoyable local festival. Whilst visiting, you might enjoy visiting the excellent Herring Era Museum.

Höfn Lobster Festival

In late June/early July, the town of Hofn, near theVatnajökull glacier hosts its annual lobster festival.  This is a wonderful opportunity to sample every possible way of eating leturhumar – the locally caught fresh lobster.  You should certainly try the lobster soup, as well as sampling the country‘s longest lobster sandwich – which somehow manages to get longer every year.  You‘ll also be entertained by outdoor games and there‘ll be  dancing and music.

Seaman’s Day -Sjómannadagurinn

Seaman’s day is celebrated around the country on a Sunday in early June.  On the day of the festival, all boats remain in harbor and the fishermen have a well-earned day off. Expect to find all kinds of organized activities, from tugs-of-war to rowing competitions.

Fishing Trips/Permits

Fly fisherman casting the fly in beautiful surroundings in Iceland
Fly fisherman casting the fly in beautiful surroundings in Iceland

If you fancy trying a little fishing yourself, you’ll need a permit or will find yourself facing a heavy fine.  But don’t let that put you off.  Here’s a handy guide to some of the best fishing spots with links for details.

Ytri-Rangá in the south of the island, not far from Hella is a salmon fisher’s dream. The huge quantity of salmon is thanks to a smolt release program. Just over an hour’s trip from Reykjavik, the salmon fishing area is best from East Rangá (around 10 km from the sea) up to Árbæjarfoss.  Further up this river you’ll find wild brown trout fishing. See FishIceland for a link on booking fishing are other details. The season here runs from the end of June to October.

The Elliðaár River is found in a suburb of Reykjavik, and does half-day permits.  It’s pretty popular because of its easy accessibility.  You can have a look at the web for further details.

Hitara is one of Iceland’s most picturesque rivers. Anglers fishing the main Hitara beat stay at the characterful  old-fashioned lodge stone built ‘castle’ perched on a cliff face overlooking Breidin one of the rivers most notable pools. The inside of the lodge is full of hunting heirlooms and a variety of quirky historical curiosities. You can book online in advance.

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