The traditional dishes in Iceland typically include meat or fish. After all, the early settlers had to survive in an unforgiving climate, where it wasn’t always easy to grow fresh vegetables. Some of these traditional meals can be shocking to Western tourists, who are used to only eating the “prime cuts” of meat. But in Iceland, nothing could be wasted.
There are some delicacies that vegetarians can try, too, though the old recipes aren’t typically suitable for vegans. Don’t worry; there are lots of international dishes to cater to all dietary requirements, so you’ll not starve while you’re here!
This article will tell you about some of the traditional dishes in Iceland. It will bust some myths about Icelandic cuisine that are shared far and wide on the internet, and it will give you some of the fascinating histories behind our national recipes.
Icelanders have always eaten a lot of sheep. They are hardy animals that do well in Iceland’s cold winters. They can even break through the ice with their trotters to get to grazing in the colder months!
Even though Iceland imports a lot of its food, the famous tender lamb from our country is exported worldwide. The sheep live in vast open spaces and graze on many wild plants, which means the taste of the meat and the quality of life for the animals are both pretty special.
But even when it comes to sheep, Icelanders aren’t precious about which parts should be eaten. Just take Svið as an example!
If you are squeamish, make sure you know what you’re ordering on an Icelandic menu. Svið is a sheep’s head, which will arrive on your plate along with the eye. (According to many Icelanders, the eye is the best bit!) If it’s any consolation, the chef will remove the brain before boiling the head. There is certainly no mistaking what you’re eating, with the face and jaw easy to distinguish.
While tourists from many countries wouldn’t bat an eyelid, most Western European and some American visitors will be taken aback by how “graphic” the meal is. Svið will come with a side like swede and mashed potatoes. If you’re feeling a bit intimidated, you might like to start by trying the cheeks, which are tender and have a more familiar taste and texture.
There are a couple of interesting superstitions for eating Sheep’s head. For example, you’ll probably notice the chef removes the ears. Old folk tales say that you’ll be accused of theft if a sheep’s head comes to the table with the ears included!
If you want to keep eyeballs firmly off your plate, you can still try some of our famous lamb. Hangikjöt is smoked lamb or mutton (an older sheep). Traditionally, Icelanders would smoke the meat by burning dry sheep’s dung or birch wood.
Thinner slices of meat can go through the smoking process for even longer. This makes a charcuterie type of meat called tvíreykt, which Icelanders love to eat over the festive season.
Typical Hangikot will use the hind legs of the sheep. But horse meat is sometimes smoked in the same way, so it’s worth asking which type of meat you’re ordering if this is important to you. (More on horse meat later!)
There’s no polite way to put this. Hrútspungar is a delicacy made from sheep’s testicles, and Icelanders have been eating it for centuries. The testicles are boiled and pickled before being made into a kind of rectangular loaf that you can slice into thin pieces.
You will find this dish in traditional restaurants, particularly in winter. It tastes rather sour, and it’s considered a delicacy. (Unlike some of the other Icelandic cuisine you’ll find in tourist restaurants, the locals genuinely do still eat this one!)
Don’t worry; you don’t have to try testicles and eyeballs to get a taste of the local cuisine! a nice heart meat soup (kjötsupa) will be the perfect thing to warm you up after exploring the hiking trails and black sand beaches.
This recipe has many variations, but it typically includes meat on the bone and vegetables, which are slow-cooked with herbs for taste and tenderness. It’s a comforting dish, and it’s not too expensive. We especially recommend it after a long hike in the bracing ocean air!
Okay, so we can’t say that hot dog stands have been on Icelandic shores since the early settlers arrived. But hot dogs are popular in present-day Iceland. So, if you want to grab some affordable food to go, you know where to look!
Some Icelandic scientists even hit the news for frying their hotdogs on a lava flow while they were studying a volcanic eruption, but we do not recommend you try that on your visit!
Iceland is famous for its horses. But you might not realize that horse meat is a part of traditional dishes. Of course, horse meat is widely eaten in many countries, including Eastern Europe, South America, Russia, and some Asian Countries. Nonetheless, some visitors find this a sensitive subject.
Although some foals are bred specifically for meat, other horses are slaughtered later in life. For example, if a horse meant for riding had an injury that would make riding painful, they could go to the meat industry instead.
Of course, you can choose to try or not try any dishes, depending on what you feel comfortable with. From an Icelandic perspective, horse meat helped keep people alive in the long, dark winters of the past. And now, most people consider the meat a normal part of our heritage.
Surrounded by the oceans on all sides, Iceland now imports a lot of its food. But it wasn’t so long ago that Icelandic people had to be self-sufficient, which made the ocean a vital source of food. The oils, bones, and skins of sea creatures gave light, warmth, and tools to early Icelanders. So the Icelandic people are strongly connected to the ocean, and they eat a lot of seafood that you won’t find in other countries!
Plokkfiskur is a creamy stew made with fish and potatoes. No two plokkfiskurs are the same because everyone uses slightly different spices. If you want to have the best fish stew in the country, you want to find a grandma (or grandpa!) who has been cooking it for 75 years and perfecting the recipe.
The stew is made with white fish like cod or haddock, and it can be cooked on the stove or baked in the oven. A good plokkfiskur will have a generous layer of bread crumbs and melting cheese over the top!
Harðfiskur is a dried fish dish. After the fish has been battered flat, it is left out to dry for many weeks in the Icelandic wind. You may even notice the tiny open cabins where the fish is hanging by the ocean. Some recipes include some salty water, but the flavor varies depending on who is making it.
Harðfiskur is a very chewy snack, which can be hard on enamel. (The early Icelanders had famously bad teeth because of all the Harðfiskur they got through!) But don’t worry, trying some of it on vacation isn’t going to wrack up any crazy dental bills!
Now, let’s look at some of the more controversial seafood dishes. Hákarl is a type of preserved shark meat that was an absolute staple for old Icelanders. The meat is fermented, so the taste is powerful. If you don’t like fish, you will not like hákarl!
Traditionally, Icelanders fermented the shark meat in the earth before hanging it up to dry. And the fermentation process might make the taste rather punchy, but the shark meat isn’t safe to eat when it’s fresh.
Depending on the cut of meat, hékarl can be chewy or soft. Many tourists find the taste overwhelming and even gag, but some people like it, especially if their home country has a culture of fermented seafood.
There is some controversy around eating Hakarl these days, because the Greenland shark can live for up to 400 years if not hunted for meat. And considering they aren’t sexually mature until they reach the age of 150, it would be easy to hunt them to extinction. However, most Icelanders eat this meat in the holiday season, not necessarily year-round.
Iceland has a bit of a reputation for whale meat. And while it’s true that some Icelandic people eat it, most of this meat is eaten by tourists, not locals!
Commercial whaling started in Iceland in 1948, so it’s not as deeply embedded into ancient Icelandic history as many visitors think. It’s true that Icelandic people ate beached whales for centuries and used their bones and blubber for lanterns and fuel for the fire. The whales that washed ashore were a lifeline in the old way of life, but very little hunting went on historically. After all, it wasn’t technologically feasible to go out on the stormy ocean and hunt these gentle giants from a little wooden sailing boat.
So, while you can buy whale meat in some shops and restaurants, most Icelandic people don’t eat it all that regularly. (According to one recent poll by IFAE, only 2% of Icelandic people regularly eat whale meat, and 84% never do).
In Summer, Puffins come to Iceland in their millions. But unfortunately, fewer chicks are surviving every year. Because of this, Puffins are a threatened species and are protected in most countries. For a few months a year, it is possible to hunt puffins for meat in the North of Iceland.
Puffin is typically served with a creamy sauce or smoked with a blueberry sauce. But it wasn’t always a delicacy for fancy restaurants! The little sea birds were an essential staple for early Icelanders, who had to hunt and fish all kinds of sea birds to avoid starvation.
Apart from in touristy restaurants, only people in the most remote areas still eat puffin regularly, where the culture of seabird hunting is still alive. Icelandic people in the towns and cities don’t eat much puffin meat due to its toughness and concerns about sustainability.
Seal meat is yet another “Icelandic dish” that most locals are not so interested in. You can find it in some restaurants, but it’s pretty rare these days. In the past, seal was an important part of Icelandic diets. It was one of the few types of meat that Icelanders ate fresh, which was a welcome change from all the salted, fermented, and dried dishes.
If you do see seal for sale, it will probably be dried. It’s a nutritious meat and packed full of calories. The early Icelanders needed that extra fat to get through the cold months.
Hunting seals is now illegal around Reykjavik, and there’s a good chance it will be banned throughout Iceland due to draft legislation currently in the pipeline. This is because of the threatened and vulnerable status of Icelandic seals.
Most traditional dishes in Iceland include meat or fish. But vegetarians will be able to try a few delicacies while they are here. Vegans will be okay in the restaurants serving international food. There are several veggie restaurants in Reykjavik, and there is usually at least one option for vegans in hotel restaurants throughout the country.
Skyr is a typical Icelandic dairy product that tastes between yogurt and cheese. It is super tasty when fresh, and you can eat it with fruits and granola. This high-protein food has been on tables since the times of the Vikings! We recommend that you buy some direct from a farm shop, so you can get an insight into modern-day farming in Iceland.
Please note that Skyr is fermented with rennet, an enzyme found in the stomach of ruminant animals like sheep and cows. Just like parmesan, camembert, and gorgonzola cheese, people feel differently about whether you can include it in a vegetarian diet.
You can’t go to Iceland without trying some of our rye bread! Our traditional recipes are slightly sweeter than you may be used to, and the bread is soft and dark. We typically slice this bread very finely and eat it with cheese or preserved meats.
If you want the whole Icelandic experience, you should seek out some ‘lava bread.’ This special rye bread is cooked in the geothermal ground heat. The bakers typically put it inside a wooden cask and bury it near a geyser. (Rye bread is not vegan due to the honey and buttermilk.)
Laufabraud is a Christmas specialty in Iceland. The wafer-thin bread is cut into beautiful geometric patterns, giving it the nick name ‘snowflake bread’. Families come together to make the dough and fry it in oil until it’s nice and crispy. We put it on the table on Christmas day. The first reference to this recipe in Iceland comes from nearly 300 years ago, but it could have been made for even longer.
There is typically a little milk and butter in the recipe, but you can sometimes find vegan versions in the supermarkets. So don’t hesitate to check the ingredients!
Icelandic people eat a lot of cheese! But the cheese industry is still quite young. Apart from Skyr, farmers only really started making cheese in the 1960s, when cows came into fashion. Historically, it was too hard to get all the ingredients needed for cheesemaking, so the cheese culture had pretty much died out since some early interest in the settling times.
You won’t find any of that indifference now, though! Icelandic cheeses are fantastic, which is lucky because we import hardly any of them from abroad. You can head to a cheese delicatessen in town to see a wide selection. Don’t hesitate to ask your vendor for more information about where it came from.
It was pretty difficult to grow vegetables reliably in the past. But thanks to geothermal greenhouses, Iceland now has delicious, organic fresh food year-round. Traditionally, we grew mainly brassicas and root veggies, but fruits are easier to get your hands on now that the greenhouses capture the earth’s heat. The Icelandic raspberries are particularly good!
It’s pretty common knowledge that Icelandic alcohol is expensive, and you can’t buy it from just anywhere. You’ll have to head to a state-approved liquor store to get hold of any alcohol, so don’t be surprised if you can’t find any in the supermarket.
Brennivin is a distilled liquor that you take as a shot or mix into a cocktail. The name Brennivin means burning wine, but it’s lovingly known as “Black Death” by the locals. The recipes vary, but it’s typically made with potato mash and flavored with caraway. The alcohol percentage is around 35.5%, so you would want to treat it with the same caution as vodka or gin.
Traditionally, you would take some Brennivin with the fermented shark Hákarl that we mentioned earlier. Some people swear that the after-taste of this liquor reminds them of Icelandic Rye Bread, but you’ll have to find out if that’s true for yourself!
You’ll find plenty of local beer on your trip to Iceland, thanks to a strong culture of microbreweries. Although a small number of these beers are exported these days, the vast majority are only available in Iceland. The industry may be booming, but it’s young. Unbelievably, the ban on beer in Iceland was only lifted 30 years ago. (They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, maybe that’s why we have so many local breweries these days!)
Boli, Bríó, Sólveig, and Gull have all won international prizes, so don’t hesitate to give them a go!
You’ll have to have a serious sweet tooth if you’re going to enjoy a cup of Jólabland. This festive drink is a mixture of a fizzy orange soda (Egils Appelsín) and a brown ale (Egils Malt). Some people take it further and add a splash of cola to the sugar bomb. The alcohol content is pretty low, so you don’t need to treat it with nearly so much caution as you would with “Black Death.”
Icelandic water is famous for its great taste and purity. But you don’t have to go and spend a load of money on bottles of mineral water. It’s flowing from the taps! The hot water tap can have a faint eggy smell due to the geothermal heating system, but the cold water taps are just as pure as anything you would buy in a bottle!
Of course, no meal is complete without a dessert! Here are a couple of sugary foods that you should try while visiting Iceland.
Mondlu Grautur is a traditional rice pudding that we love to eat around Christmas. It’s a mixture of rice, whipped cream, and almonds. In many countries, people search for the coin in their Christmas fruit pudding. In Iceland, some families search for the almond in the rice pudding instead. If you find that almond, you might even get a prize!
If you pop into an Icelandic bakery (spoiler alert – you should!), you’ll find cinnamon buns covered in chocolate. Icelanders love eating these, traditionally with a chocolate milkshake. These are more of a modern tradition that took off in the 90s. But Iceland is well known for them now!
Hjónabandsæla is a delicious cake made with spices and oatmeal, typically served with Rhubarb Jam. Some people add grated coconut to the mix these days, though such exotic ingredients weren’t available in the past. It goes just perfectly with a cup of tea and a cozy fire.
Kleinur are delicious fried doughnuts that we eat in Iceland. You’ll find them in most Nordic countries, and they often have a little ground cardamom fried into the mix. The dough is rolled out flat, then cut into triangles which we twist into a knot. They are excellent dipped in coffee!
We couldn’t finish the guide to Icelandic food without mentioning Ice cream. It doesn’t matter how cold or windy it gets; we Icelanders love a cone of Ice cream year-round. The best ice cream comes directly from the farms where the milk was made. Gamli ice cream is more watery, whereas nyi is nice and creamy. You’ll have to try both before you choose your favourite. (Poor you!)
Don’t worry if you feel a bit intimidated by traditional Icelandic cuisine. If you don’t want to eat sour testicles and sheep’s eyes, you can enjoy one of our slow-cooked meat stews with fresh lava bread and a local beer. Follow it up with some coffee and fried doughnuts, and there is nothing to be frightened of!
Since the boom in tourism, there is also plenty of international food to be had in Iceland. You’ll find some excellent Asian food and Pizza joints in the towns and cities, and fresh fish and chips are available at the harbor.
Of course, we encourage you to try some of our ancient recipes like smoked fish and Skyr, as well as some of the more atypical dishes Iceland is famous for. Just bear in mind that some dishes like whale meat and seal meat aren’t eaten much by the locals these days, even if they are served in restaurants geared up for tourists.
We hope that you found this information helpful! If you’d like to find more information about visiting Iceland, don’t hesitate to check out more of our blog posts and hand-picked tours. We wish you a safe journey to the land of fire and ice!