Traditional Food to Taste In Iceland

For the full-on Icelandic cultural experience, you really ought to sample at least one traditional Icelandic dish. Icelandic cuisine goes way beyond the cod, salmon and lamb that you may be expecting (although these are all excellent).  Much of what’s on offer reflects the seafaring history of the Icelandic people.  It also reflects the fact that, in a land where there is very little sun to cultivate crops for several months of the year, there was a time when it was important that no part of an animal should go to waste. You can expect to find a wide variety of dried and preserved foods in traditional Icelandic cooking.  Some of these dishes are still popular today.  Some are an acquired taste, often only eaten by the locals on traditional feast days.

Icelandic cuisine has undergone a seismic shift in the last 30 years. Modern chefs place great emphasis on getting the best out of fresh, locally- sourced ingredients.  They have successfully adapted traditional Icelandic staples, using cooking techniques and flavors from around the world to offer you some exceptional modern delicacies.

Use our handy guide to learn more about traditional Icelandic dishes. Whether you’re looking for the best soup you ever tasted or for an exciting new culinary challenge, you’ll find that there’s something for everyone on the menu.

Traditional Soups

Icelandic traditional soups are hearty and filling. It would be a mistake to leave Iceland without having tried at least one of these delicious soups.

Meat Soup/Kjötsúpa

Icelandic soup with meat - Islensk kjotsupa
Icelandic soup with meat – Islensk Kjotsupa

This is traditionally prepared with lamb shank and vegetables. Every family will have their own favorite recipe.  Grains such as oats, barley or rice are often used to thicken the soup.  A variety of herbs add depth of flavor.  It makes a great winter warmer and a hearty, filling lunch dish.

Fish Soup/Fiskisúpa

Icelandic fish soup with salmon and prawns
Icelandic fish soup with salmon and prawns

This is something really worth sampling during your stay in Iceland.  There are so many varieties.  It is usually made with a mixture of different fish, often including cod or Arctic char.  The soup contains vegetables and is often made with a generous slug of alcohol (usually white wine) and lashings of cream.  Delicious!

Curried Langoustine Soup/ Humarsúpa

If you like lobster and you like curry, then you’ll love this excellent, creamy soup made with langoustine, white wine, cream and delicious spices for an added kick.  If you try it for lunch, it will keep you happily full until the evening meal.

Traditional Fish Dishes

You’ll find excellent fresh haddock, cod, Arctic charr, salmon, monkfish, halibut, herring, plaice and skate on most menus.  Also, do try fresh langoustine (often described as lobster), served with butter and garlic – the tail is the best bit.  Shrimp, oysters and mussels are also well worth sampling during the summer months.  But if you want to sample some really traditional Icelandic fish dishes, you might give all or any of the following a try:

Cod Cheeks/Tongue

The cheeks of the cod are the most tender, juicy part.  If you’ve never tried eating these before, then make Iceland the place where you first try this delicacy.  It’s an experience you’ll want to keep coming back to.

Harðfiskur/ Dried Fish Jerkey

Dried Smoked Salmon Jerky with Salt and Pepper
Dried Smoked Salmon Jerky with Salt and Pepper

This tasty dried fish is hugely popular with the locals.  It can be made from pretty well any fish; often cod or haddock.  You’ll often find Icelanders eating it with butter.  It comes in a variety of forms-traditionally it’s found in strips, which can be eaten as they are or used in cooking. Today there are all kinds of crispy snack versions too.  Traditionally the fish was wind-dried, outside.  One of the great things about snacking on harðfiskur is that it’s packed full of healthy omega-3 fish oils.

Plokkfiskur /Fish Stew

Translating the name of this dish as “mashed fish” really doesn’t do it justice.  It’s a rich, creamy dish made with fish, often haddock, vegetables and milk or cream.  Modern recipes often add white wine and herbs for extra flavour.

Hákarl/ Fermented Shark Meat

specialty of Iceland called Hakarl, fermented shark in open warehouse at bjarnarhoefn
Specialty of Iceland called Hakarl, fermented shark in open warehouse at Bjarnarhoefn

Traditionally eaten at the old pagan feast of Þorrablót (in January/February), this pungent delicacy, literally consisting of decomposed shark meat is very much an acquired taste.  The curing process involves burying shark meat (usually from the Greenland shark) in the sand and then hanging it out to dry – the whole process lasting several months.  The result is a chewy meat that smells strongly of ammonia (yes-that’s urea). Unless you are extremely adventurous, you probably want to give this a miss.

Traditional Meat/Seabird Dishes

You’ll find plenty of delicious, tender free-range lamb on the menu in most Icelandic restaurants.  This is definitely worth a try. The flavour of the lamb is enhanced by the fact that during the summer months the lambs are left to graze on wild grasses, mosses and herbs, giving the meat an almost sweet, gamey flavor.  However, you’ll also find some meat dishes which you’ll never have tried before and may have difficulty getting hold of outside of Iceland. Some of these are delicious.  Others are only for the very brave.

Hangikjöt/ Smoked Lamb

Hangikjöt
Hangikjöt, Icelandic Traditional Meat Food

This is what Icelanders are most likely to serve on Christmas Day.  It has been eaten for hundreds of years, and was traditionally prepared by pickling or dry-salting a leg or shoulder of lamb, which is then smoked over a fire made from sheep’s dung, birch wood or a mixture of the two. The resulting meat is tender and very tasty.

Svið/ Boiled Sheep’s Head

If you can overcome your horror at the prospect of seeing an entire sheep’s head on your plate (eyes included), then this is actually a surprisingly good dish to try.

Sviðasulta/ Sheep’s Head Cheese

Don’t be mistaken into thinking this is a type of cheese.  For this dish, the boiled sheep’s head has been pickled and pressed into gelatin slabs.

Hrútspungar/ Ram’s Testicle

If you’re feeling really adventurous, then this dish will be one you can tell the folks back home about.  Are you brave enough to try this one?

Svartfugl/Guillemot

This seabird is often described as “blackbird” on the menu.  Don’t worry-it’s not the blackbird as we know it, but the seabird, guillemot.  It has a dark meat with a strong, gamey taste.  Cooked by a top chef it can be delicious.

Breads

Rúgbrauð/ Rye Bread

fresh rustic wholemeal rye bread, sliced on a wooden board, closeup
Fresh rustic wholemeal rye bread, sliced on a wooden board, closeup

This heavy, slightly sweet rye bread was traditionally cooked by being buried underground near a thermal spring.  It keeps well and is a common accompaniment to many traditional meat dishes and soups.  It can also be served hot, mixed with fruit and cream or skyr.

Flatkaka

Flatatka is another type of rye bread, softer than rúgbrauð and unleavened.  It is traditionally served as an accompaniment to the Christmas smoked lamb, but also goes well with pickled herring.

Desserts and Pastries

Icelandic pancakes with blueberries
Icelandic pancakes with blueberries

They say that it’s impossible to come to Iceland and not eat skyr, in one of its many forms at least once.  That’s probably true.  As well as the ubiquitous skyr, you’ll find a fine selection of cakes and pastries on offer in Iceland- a reminder of the days when Iceland was occupied by Denmark.

Skyr

Icelanders love their skyr.  To describe it as a type of yoghurt, or cream cheese would not really be doing it justice.  It’s high in protein, calcium and vitamins, but low in carbs and fat, so makes a highly nutritious breakfast, served with fresh berries.  You’ll find all sorts of desserts on the menu made with skyr.  You really should give this a try.

Pönnukökur/ Pancakes

These thin, sweet pancakes are usually served with cream, berries or skyr.  Cinnamon is often added.  They make a tasty breakfast or can be served as a dessert.

Kleinur/Doughnuts

Kleina is a deep-fried dough spiced bun, similar to a doughnut.   It has a distinctive, knotted shape.

Jólagrautur

If you’re visiting around Christmas time you might want to sample this traditional “Yule pudding’’.  It’s a type of rice pudding flavored with dried fruit and cinnamon.

Drinks To Accompany Your Meal

Did you know that beer was not legalized in Iceland until 1989? First there was prohibition, and after Iceland gained independence from Denmark in 1944 it was considered unpatriotic to drink beer.  Every year on 1st March Icelanders celebrate Beer Day, the day when it became acceptable to drink beer.

The best known traditional Icelandic schnapps is brennivin, which is made from fermented grains or potatoes and flavoured with caraway.  They sometimes refer to it as “black death”, so try not to drink too much of it.

Don’t Leave Without Trying Some Traditional Food

It would be a mistake to end you trip to Iceland without sampling some of the traditional dishes described here.  Being a traveller is all about immersing yourself in the culture of the country you are visiting and food is an important part of this experience.  We hope you enjoy some of the traditional dishes we’ve described in this guide during your stay here.