Given its sheer beauty and breathtaking views, Iceland has become a hot travel destination in recent years. From its remote wilderness to its thundering waterfalls, gushing volcanoes and geysers, floating glaciers, stark ice caps, and northern lights streaked across the sky, there are plenty of secret wonders to behold in this nearly Arctic European country.
When it comes to food, however, it’s unlikely that most visitors have ever had a sampling of traditional Icelandic cooking. While there is plenty to see and do – glacier walks and sea kayaking are just a couple of popular activities – it’s best to know your dining options before traveling. As the number of tourists to Iceland has steadily increased over the last couple of decades, the cuisine has changed along with it. Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, offers more variety than other parts. Yet part of the fun of traveling is the daring experience of eating foods foreign to one’s palette. Here is just a sampling of some of the more customary culinary delights that stunning Iceland has to offer:
For traditional Icelandic food, look no further than the sea. Fish is in abundance, and most fish dishes on the menu include haddock, halibut, herring, plaice, and shrimp.The country is famed for whale meat, particularly Minke whale. Foodies who live on the edge can also find grated puffin in some restaurants. (Puffin is also a Christmas dish, along with salted pork rib.)
As far as other meats go, smoked lamb, or hangikjöt, is another perennial favorite, along with smoked lamb sausage, sheep’s head, and sheep sausage. Reindeer is available, but is usually very expensive. Rutabaga, cabbage, and turnips round out the vegetables grown in greenhouses, with the country relying on imports for sweet fruits and berries.
Snacking includes dried fish pieces with butter and coleslaw known as harðfiskur, while skyr is like a high-protein yogurt cheese. Yet here’s one food you’re probably already accustomed to: the pylsa, or hot dog, is the Icelandic fast food of choice, served with fried onions, ketchup, mustard, and remoulade. These are easy to find at one of many convenience stores and sweet shops dotting Icelandic towns. Speaking of sweet shops, bakers have their roots in Danish cooking, so cinnamon rolls and sweet breads are common. Kleina is small fried dough buns that have been flattened and cut into trapezoid shapes.
If you’re looking for the most traditional of culinary cultural adventures, find a place that serves Þorramatur, or head to a gathering known as Þorrablót. Þorramatur simply refers to platter of country food that include some of the following: putrefied shark cubes known as hákarl, which are noted for their pungent smell and taste, a whole sheep’s head, or hrútspungar (pickled ram’s testicles). If you’re invited to one of these, there is likely to be offer fish and meats served, in case your appetite cannot be quenched by one of these more adventurous delicacies.
As for beverages, water is perfectly safe to drink. In fact, given its glacial surroundings, it has some of the cleanest water in the world! Coffee is easy to come by, as well as alcohol – but beers will cost a pretty penny. Furthermore, much like other Europeans drinks, local Icelandic drinks contain more alcohol content that their American counterparts, so pace yourself.
A word to those traveling on a budget – because the country is so remote, one must pay a price. Food prices are higher in Iceland, from the fanciest restaurant to the quickest table service, so be careful to factor in a little more for eating out during the day and at night.