According to our contributor, if views and vistas were edible, you’d never go hungry in Iceland. Photos won’t fill your belly, of course, so thankfully there’s a ton of hearty things to munch on.
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. All photos courtesy of Chanie Hyde.
Traditional Icelandic meals that you may have heard of, like sheep’s face and various uses of offal, are getting harder to come by as younger generations make a decent income and have grown their palates to more European tastes. Subsistence farming to survive the cold of winter and eating what’s available while preserving the rest are no longer necessary. “Back in my day!” cry the baby boomers of Iceland, lamenting the days past, while the kids order pizza and burgers from the trendiest new cafe. But that’s not to say traditional food is unavailable. From the amazing to the unusual, here are five great Icelandic foods you absolutely must try while traveling the land of fire and ice.
Kjötsúpa: Meat Soup
There are a few dishes that have stayed as common as Viking memorabilia, and one of them is meat soup. It appears on most pub and many restaurant menus across the country.
Inquiries into where to get the best version of this comfort food (made with lamb meat and vegetables like potatoes, rutabagas, and carrots) will no doubt cause every Icelander to claim “at my mum’s!”
This may very well be true, despite most restaurants claiming to have the “best.” Cafe Loki in Reykjavík does a very hearty version, but the tastiest I managed to consume was in fact a homemade version. Served up in the middle of nowhere by the owners of Nice Hostel, it was rich and chunky, with a broth like something you’d make a trip home to Nana’s to eat. Heaven.
Skyr is deliciously thick, naturally sweet, jam-packed with protein and literally everywhere in Iceland. A national shortage of Skyr would likely drive the whole country back into a financial crisis, simply because people wouldn’t know how to start their morning without it.
It looks and tastes a lot like yogurt, but it’s actually a type of cheese. The best part? It’s almost completely naturally free of sugar, lactose, and fat. I don’t know why this isn’t in every smoothie and in every corner store in every country for every meal!
Have it for breakfast, a snack, a treat, dessert, or whenever you feel like it, really, since it’s sold everywhere that food is sold or served, and has been around for a more than a millennium...so you know it’s good.
Hangikjöt: Smoked and “Hung” Lamb
No road trip around Iceland would be possible without stopping at least eight times to let a herd of sheep cross the road. Rather than being penned in and restricted to paddocks, they roam the tundra and farmland, completely wild until they’re rounded up for slaughter.
They are as cute as they are hazardous, sometimes changing their mind mid-path or stubbornly standing there refusing to move. It’s all a part of the Icelandic adventure, and a good reason for car rental insurance!
Their free-range roaming makes for a tasty and full-flavored meat, particularly when it’s smoked and served simply on a plate of rye or flatbread (rúgbrauð or flatbraud), as it is at Cafe Loki in Reykjavík. The lamb takes on some sweetness from the smoking, with the taste reminiscent of an excellent Christmas ham, as, like most hams, the meat is taken from the leg bone.
You can sample it at nearly any restaurant, or head to a convenience store or supermarket to find it pre-sliced and ready to devour cold or hot.
Bag o' bitafiskur, Icelandic dried fish
Bitafiskur and Harðfiskur: Dried Fish
Seafood in Iceland is second to none in the world. There are many restaurants in every town that serve excellent fish. You literally can’t go wrong. From the “mashed fish” (usually cod) on rye to the pickled herring, the salmon steaks, and the lobster tails, it will be fresh and world-class.
However, an Icelandic tradition of drying fish for later consumption is going strong today, and definitely worth a try.
Harðfiskur spread with butter
There are a couple of different kinds of dried fish, which require eating in different ways:
- Harðfiskur: Usually cod or haddock, this is dried in thin, long hard strips; it’s quite dry and needs a generous slathering of butter to bring out the flavor and ensure you still have saliva to chew.
- Bitafiskur: These are ready-to-eat, bite-size portions of fishy (but not overpoweringly so) goodness perfect for TV snacking or a hike.
The gas station is a common place to find both kinds, though there are plenty of restaurants that serve harðfiskur alongside a main meal or as an appetizer.
Pylsa, aka the Best Hot Dogs in the World
Iceland claims to have the world’s greatest hot dogs. In particular Baejarins Beztu Pylsur, an unassuming vendor in the center of Reykjavík, lays claim to having the best on the planet. Considering hot dog heavyweights like New York and Chicago, these certainly are fighting words.
The Icelandic hot dog sets itself apart from the rest by featuring the local lamb, along with pork and beef, all free-range and organic. It is served on a steamed, then grilled, bun, atop raw white onions and crispy fried onions; it’s then coated in ketchup, sweet brown mustard (pylsusinnep), and remoulade.
Rather than head to the “best,” I figured a country that claims to have the best in the world should serve them at many places. I instead ordered one at a gas station near the seaside town of Vík. Armed with a heavy sense of skepticism, I was prepared to be let down.
It was truly an excellent hot dog: crunchy in the right places, with a satisfying pop in your mouth as the skin breaks open. It has that rich meaty taste and mouthwatering aroma, without that sometimes heavy “sausage” smell.
Well played, Iceland. Well played.
BONUS TIP: Drink the water!
The amount of people buying bottled water across Iceland is staggering. Why? Because the tap water across the entire country is some of the purest and best-tasting water you’ll ever get to drink.
Icelandic groundwater is mainly made up of glacier runoff that’s been filtered through the bedrock and into the tapped water. It’s delicious and full of minerals. It’s also exactly the same as the stuff you’ll buy in a bottle.
So buy one if you must and refill wherever you go. It’ll save a ton of cash and landfill.
About the author: On a mission to find foods that make most people say “ew,” Chanie Hyde (The Hungry Ginger) has been adventuring and sharing stories about food for more than a decade. Not shy to try anything at least once, and known to dabble in competitive eating from time to time, she loves a challenge and is never happier than traveling the world by the grumbles in her stomach.