Iceland is definitely known for its spectacular nature but possibly not for its cuisine. If you browse through guidebooks you might stumble upon weird dishes like Svið (singed and boiled sheep head), minke whale or Hákarl (cured shark), which has a strong taste of ammonia, and is reminiscent of a very ripe cheese.
Well, our personal experience differed quite a bit from those – lets say a bit – strange sounding culinary treats. Without getting into ethnics but we ended up not trying the shark or whale. We ate exceptionally well throughout our two weeks stay – fresh, local and innovative. The mainstays include lamb, skyr, potatoes, fish and a lot of seafood like cod, haddock, monkfish, herring, skate, lobster and salmon from the bountiful Arctic waters.
Our highlights included the fresh fish, which we ate nearly every day in one or the other form.
Skyr, which is technically a type of soft cheese but more referred to as a yoghurt-like product, was also on our menu on a daily basis whilst in Iceland. Made from gelatinous milk curds it has a wonderful, rich, yoghurt-like texture and slightly sour taste. Icelanders eat it for breakfast, snack or dessert and in recent years it has become popular in other parts of the world due to its nutritional value. This so-called superfood is incredibly high in protein and low in fat, and also rich in calcium and various vitamins.
Rúgbrauð, is a traditional Icelandic rye bread cooked for 24 hours buried in the ground in the steam from a geyser – natures geothermal oven. Due to its long, slow cooking process the bread is very dark, dense and moist with a sweetish taste. I enjoyed it a lot especially with salted butter. Teaming it with some smoked salmon would be perfect; I had to skip that due to my pregnancy but I save that for next time 🙂
You will search in vain for international fast food chains in Iceland, which doesn’t mean however that you won’t find fast food items on the menu. On the contrary; since the Americans were stationed in Iceland during the World Wars in the 20th century, hamburgers and hot dogs are staple foods in Iceland. Pylsur – as the hot dog is called – became one of the most typically Icelandic foods. They contain lamb, which gives them an unusual flavor, but the magic is in the sauces. A real Icelandic hot dog is served með öllu, with everything on it, which means ketchup, a sweet brown mustard, raw onions, fried onions, and remoulade (a sauce made with mayonnaise and relish).
To balance out the healthy, light seafood we also indulged regularly in a hamburger. I am usually not a huge fan of burgers but those here were really fresh and tasty. We enjoyed the Hamborgarafabrikan a lot, an establishment focusing purely on burgers.
A fun fact about this chain, which you by the way find twice in Reykjavik and once in Akureyri, is that they display the current number of Icelanders. When a baby is born, bells are ringing and one of the waiters is changing the number. We were wondering (and asked) what happens if somebody passes away. Apparently, the figure is then corrected secretly after all the guests left.
Another famous food item is lamb, especially the smoked version of it known as Hangikjöt. As I don’t really like it, I let other family members try it. The meat is reputed to be especially good because the sheep are free to roam around the wilderness of the unspoiled, barren highlands grazing all summer long on fresh grass, herbs and plants which contributes to the rich and complex flavor. The meat is then traditionally smoked over a fire fueled with birch or dried sheep dung. The star of the meal usually comes with potatoes, béchamel sauce, red beets and green peas as sides.
In the sweet department you will find – as in the rest of Scandinavia – pancakes and black licorice. The pönnukökurs are thin, sweet and usually rolled up with jam, powdered sugar, cinnamon or berries. The black licorice you find either sweet or salted, in swirly shapes, long laces or ropes. Many candies are also flavored with black licorice such as cookies, chocolate bars or ice cream.
Iceland with its long, harsh winters naturally does not have many fresh foods growing. Thanks to their innovation they came up with greenhouses powered by geothermal energy yielding gorgeous veggies and fruits, which adds to the variety of locally grown food you find nowadays in the supermarkets.
We had no trouble finding dishes and treats we enjoyed! But then lets face it; we never did so far, no matter where we traveled on this globe 🙂
Have you been to Iceland? What were your experiences food-wise?