Hands up who thought Icelandic food began and ended with rotted shark meat? If you’re visiting Iceland in the near future, then you’ll be pleased to know that there’s a lot more to try than the delicacy they call hákarl. Local food here includes the consumption of whale meat and puffin, but there’s plenty to suit less adventurous palates too. To find out what Icelanders eat and to explore the culinary side of this mid-Atlantic nation, read on.
Icelandic street food
Most people who travel to Iceland are going to find themselves in Reykjavik at some point, and it’s a good starting point to explore all kinds of gastronomy. It’s the best place to get acquainted with Icelandic street food. You might be surprised that in this maritime nation, the quintessential street food dish is actually the humble hot dog. In fact, the oldest street food cart in the city is one selling hot dogs. The cart to find is emblazoned with the name Baejarins Beztu Pylsur, which translates as “the town’s best hot dogs”. The business has been located in the harbour area since 1937 and it’s always been a family affair. But it was in 2014 that the cart hit the headlines when former US President Bill Clinton gave it the thumbs up. Though many people enjoy "ein með öllu" (or "one with everything", that’s ketchup, mustard, fried and raw onion and remoulade), Clinton opted for just mustard. He’s not the only famous face to have showed up at the cart: cast members filming Game of Thrones were regulars and Hollywood actor Ben Stiller paid a visit while making the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
Traditional Icelandic food
Iceland’s best known for its seafood, however. Surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, you’d be surprised if fish wasn’t a key part of the diet. Throughout the country’s long history, its population have eaten fish. Among the most common types of fish you’ll encounter are cod, haddock, halibut, mackerel, monkfish, capelin and pollock, but there are plenty more. Salmon and Arctic char are also fished from freshwater sources. In some restaurants, you can also try minke whale. Minke whales are not endangered species and the industry is carefully monitored to identify any impact on stocks. One of the best places to try it if you’re in Reykjavik is at Tapas Barinn, where it forms part of their Icelandic Gourmet Feast alongside lobster, ling and puffin.
Fish stew is widespread. Plokkfiskur, as it’s called, (literally “plucked fish”) is comfort food at its best. Chunks of fish – usually some white fish like cod or haddock – and potatoes are mixed with diced onions, chicken stock and a béchamel sauce for a dish that’s packed full of flavour. It’s usually served with rye bread and it’s delicious. Icelandic fish is a staple of the diet, of course. Fish and chips served British style is a relatively new import, though one that’s been adopted with relish. If you’re on the hunt for a fishy snack, try hardfiskur. It’s kind of like beef jerky, only fish, and is considered a delicacy in Iceland. Some people prefer to eat it with butter as it’s a little more palatable if you’re not used to it.
Lamb is another staple of traditional Icelandic food. Sheep farms are a common sight throughout the country and these hardy creatures cope well with Iceland’s cold climate. The industry is carefully regulated and as such, you can be sure that if it’s Icelandic lamb you’re eating, then it’s high-quality meat from animals who’ve grazed freely on the country’s pastures. A variation to try is hangikjöt, which is traditional Icelandic smoked lamb. Traditionally, it’s made over a fire fuelled by sheep dung. The meat’s salted and roasted, then served in thin slices as you might expect with other cured meats such as prosciutto or jamón serrano.
While many of us wouldn’t hesitate to eat lamb, another Icelandic dish might need a sense of adventure and a stronger stomach. Svið is a traditional dish which consists of half a sheep’s head. The fur and brain are removed and the rest is boiled. It dates from a time when locals couldn’t afford to waste any part of the animal. You used to be able to get it at the bus station diner in Reykjavik but that closed as these days, sheep’s heads have gone out of fashion. If you’re desperate to try it, some people still eat it at the Þorrablót mid-winter festival. The cheek’s tender and tasty, while the eye’s considered a delicacy.
Meat soup is a popular choice, for those looking for a quick yet hearty meal. It’s particularly effective when there’s a chill in the air. Known as Kjötsúpa, this is a thick, filling soup which is usually made with lamb and a rich broth. In your bowl, you’ll also find heaps of potatoes, carrots, onions, leeks and spices as well as barley for thickening.
Vegetarian food in Iceland
Icelandic cuisine should be a highlight of any trip to Iceland, but if you don’t eat meat or fish, you’re probably reading this article with some degree of trepidation. When it comes to vegetarian food in Iceland, you needn’t worry. On the go, vegetarians will find veggie wraps and salads in many of the grocery stores you’ll find dotted around. Svarta Kaffiđ, in the capital, always has a great vegetarian soup option on its menu. Gló’s another name worth seeking out. This healthy eating chain has several branches, one of which is 100% vegan. Natural, meat-free ingredients are combined in a style that is as inventive as it is satisfying. Kaffi Vínyl has fewer vegan items on its menu than it once did, but this combo of music and food is still worth checking out if you’re in downtown Reykjavik.
Iceland must-try food
Skyr deserves a special mention and should be on everyone’s list of foods to try during their trip to Iceland, vegetarian or not. This dairy product has made a successful crossover to Western Europe and remains as popular as ever in its native country. Its consumption dates back to mediaeval times when the product is mentioned in the sagas. Skyr’s officially a fresh sour milk cheese but has the consistency of Greek yoghurt. It’s often served with fresh berries and makes an excellent choice for breakfast.
A Guide to Icelandic Food for visitors
To conclude our round-up of Icelandic food, let’s deal with the elephant in the room: hákarl. This notorious foodstuff is actually Greenland shark. If you were to eat the shark meat untreated, you’d find yourself in trouble, as the high urea and trimethylamine content makes it poisonous. Processing rids the shark meat of its toxins and the cured meat is then hung up to dry before being cut into small pieces to eat. The ammonia smell makes many people nauseous, but if you can cope with that, it’s not dissimilar to eating an old piece of parmesan that’s gone rock hard at the back of the fridge. You can learn more about the process and try it for yourself at the Bjarnarhöfn Shark Museum on Snæfellsnes. If you can stomach it, you’re doing better than many of the world’s top chefs. Gordon Ramsay spat his out.
Anthony Bourdain described it as "the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing" he had ever eaten. TV chef Ainsley Harriott, couldn’t cope with the ammonia and poetically – if dramatically - described it as "like chewing a urine-infested mattress".
I have to say, I rather liked it. But would you?