Food in Iceland: How to Eat like a local
What kinds of food do Icelandic people eat? Is traditional Icelandic cuisine still around? What are the “must try” dishes for people visiting the country?
The answer to your food based questions will be answered soon!
My name is Sam Daniels, a writer from the UK who has moved to the incredibly beautiful country of Iceland and I LOVE the local food that Reykjavik has to offer.
If you are reading this then you are looking for some great tips on how to get the most out of your trip to Iceland and in particular, you want a guide on the local cuisine of the Icelandic people.
This blog has been written specifically to help you out with a series of top tips and informational tidbits that will help you to eat like a local!
Below you will find a quick table of contents to help you find what you are looking for:
- Iceland food history
- Traditional Icelandic foods
- Icelandic meat and fish
- Outside Influences on Icelandic food
- Modern Reykjavik kitchens
- Eat like an Icelandic local
- Experience Icelandic cuisine for yourself
Icelandic food history
Travelling to a new country is always exciting. New sights to see, new paths to walk and, most importantly, new foods to taste. Iceland is no different, with a cuisine that has developed in a number of amazing directions from its humble beginnings in the Viking era to its modern rise in culinary excellence.
To understand the culture of food in Iceland it is important that we look back on its history and where the foods that many people (both locals and visitors) enjoy today came from.
Food in Iceland was built on a need to ensure that things lasted and would give you enough energy to survive in the challenging conditions that the frigid country offered. Whilst the cold climate provided natural refrigeration this alone was not enough to ensure that the provisions would be around long enough to be made into meals. Because of this, much of the food that the early Icelanders had would have been salted or smoked in order to make sure it would not spoil. Salt was not always in high supply though and when they were unable to get their hands on it the early Icelanders would turn to fermentation techniques as an alternative way to preserve their foods (a tradition that still survives today).
Traditional Icelandic foods
But what kind of foods would they eat? While the climate of medieval Iceland was thought to be much milder than it is today, the country has never been a particularly good location for the growing of fruits and vegetables.
Despite this, the Icelanders were very successful in growing oats and barley that they could use to make things such as porridge and beer. Unable to rely on crops alone, Icelandic cuisine instead relied heavily on animal products and so meals would consist primarily of meat, fish and dairy products. Nothing in Icelandic cooking would go to waste. Even when making their dairy products such as the famous Skyr, the whey byproduct would be used to preserve meats.
Icelandic meat and fish
Fishing was an easy way to provide food for the residents of Iceland and made up much of the backbone of the Icelandic economy and society. Fish is able to be caught almost all year round on the coast of Iceland with notable fish being plaice, halibut, haddock, herring, and even shrimp. Shark also belongs on this list, traditionally being fermented and then served with a shot of “Black Death” (more on that in this blog post here)
Farm animals were another plentiful food source and for that, the Icelanders turned to the faithful Icelandic sheep. These were the ideal animal for an Icelandic farmer to raise as not only could they produce a lot of meat but also milk and wool. This meant that the entirety of the animal would be able to be harvested and used with little waste, allowing for maximum efficiency.
Besides these staples, there were other meats that Icelanders may have enjoyed on a less frequent basis such as horse meat (despite the objections of the Christians), puffin, whale and even reindeer when they were introduced to the country.
While many other countries have chosen to leave the foods and preparation techniques of the past behind them as they developed more convenience with their food, Iceland has chosen to keep one eye firmly behind them no matter how far forward they travel. Even today, with Icelandic food entering a renaissance, there is a strong connection to the ways of the past that dictates the approach that chefs will take when developing dishes.
Supermarkets especially are stocked with items that are not too dissimilar from their counterparts from yesteryear.
Outside Influences on Icelandic food
The identity of Iceland today stands firmly with one foot in the past and one foot in the future but it had to go through various stages to get to that point. Throughout its history, Iceland has been under either reign or rule from a variety of foreign powers and these occupations have left their mark on the country. Whether it was the reign of the Danish king who seized control of the country or the occupation of armies such as the American or the British, there have been many who have tried to impose themselves on this small Island.
While ultimately their times here came to an end each one left behind a small part of themselves that got absorbed into the culture. Ironically, it could be said that these attempts at taking the Icelandic identity away are what have most strengthened its core identity.
Modern Reykjavik kitchens
So where does this leave Icelandic cuisine today?
Stepping out from the past we have today a culinary landscape filled with fantastic fusions, interesting imports and pure preservation. A fascinating mixing pot where classics such as smoked puffin can be elevated to the point of fine dining and then placed happily on a menu alongside fine cuts of steak or expertly crafted burgers. A location that is always happy to embrace the new with a variety of locations offering amazing dishes that cater to vegans, vegetarians and people of all dietary needs. In Reykjavik, you can easily walk a short distance through the centre of town and come across Italian, Icelandic, Indian, Thai, Mexican and Brazilian restaurants that are all serving remarkably high-quality dishes.
As a person who enjoys eating out, I often find myself spoilt for choice and that choice is constantly growing as more and more people come to realise the significance of Iceland on the world stage of food. For those who prefer to cook at home, Iceland still remains a great country to eat in. The Icelandic people have such deep care for the products that they consume and as such the ingredients that are on offer are of incredibly high quality.
Eat like an Icelandic local
Now that we have a better understanding of the importance of food in Iceland and where that heritage has come from we can finally understand what it means to eat like a local.
Let’s go through a selection of “Must try” dishes and things that you won’t want to miss while you are in Iceland!
I believe the top spot has to go to the Icelandic lamb. These sheep are allowed to spend much of the year roaming freely across the Icelandic landscape where their diet consists of grass and berries and the result has to be tasted to be believed.
Lamb is a serious deal in Iceland and the very best establishments serving this delicacy will be adorned with a metal shield that in the words of icelandiclamb.is is “our Symbol of Trust, Consistency and Quality for Genuine Icelandic Lamb Products.”
The humble hotdog. While it may initially seem strange to see something that is so simple placed on a list such as this, all you need to do is take one bite and your questions will be answered. Made with a mixture of Lamb, Beef and pork the Icelandic Pylsa is an absolute delight and unlike anything, I have tasted anywhere else in the world. For the true, authentic, experience be sure to order yours with a little bit of everything!
For more in-depth info on these little pockets of joy click here
Perhaps one of the most common and easy to find local dishes of all is the traditional Icelandic meat soup. Known as Kjötsúpa and most commonly featuring lamb as the primary protein this soup is almost a stew but is absolutely packed with flavour.
This is the kind of meal that warms you from the inside, out during the cold winter nights and it is not uncommon to find this soup served in a bread bowl!
As the popularity of this Icelandic dairy product grows, it is starting to find a home on store shelves all across the world. Of course for the original and traditional experience, you have to come and sample this dairy-based delight in its home country. Skyr is a yoghurt-like product (which is technically classified as a kind of cheese) that is produced with low-fat milk. The end product is packed with proteins and healthy bacterias which are great for the body.
One of my favourite stories involves an Icelandic woman who, during a snowstorm, developed a sudden craving for Ice cream. The hope was that the harsh weather would mean that the local ice cream parlour (of which Iceland is home to many) would be empty. However, after braving the cold the woman was shocked to find a massive line of people who had all had a similar idea.
Icelanders absolutely love their ice cream. Whether they are wrapping up in the winter or strolling around under the midnight sun, Icelandic ice cream and the places that sell it are large parts of the social experience of the country. Icelanders love to grab what is called “Candy Icecream” or bragðarefur. This is a delicious ice cream blended with a variety of fruits and sweets.
Experience Icelandic cuisine for yourself
The best way to enjoy Icelandic cuisine is to jump into it and try everything you can. We are only just scratching the surface of what is possible with the foods of Iceland. As more time passes, Icelandic chefs are constantly coming up with new ways to push the medium forwards. The great thing about Icelandic food is that at its heart it is about the quality of the ingredients over the quality of the dish.
Of course, if you would like to experience local cuisine as seen through the eyes of a local then I wholeheartedly recommend the Wake Up Reykjavik food tour. You will be able to experience a mixture of cosy home cooking and fancy fine dining while also learning more about the deep-rooted history of the food here!
The cuisine available in Iceland is an experience unlike anything else in the world, so get out and enjoy it!