If you’re an adventurous eater, Iceland is an ideal place to broaden your culinary horizons. If you’re questioning what to eat in Iceland, let this guide lead the way.
As you might expect, the typical Icelandic diet is heavy on seafood and lamb, since both are available in abundance in the country’s harsh North Atlantic climate. However, Iceland is also known for some very distinctive dishes that only the most daring visitors are brave enough to try.
What to Eat in Iceland
Hakarl (Fermented Shark)
While this dish has fallen out of favor in modern times, old-school Icelanders continue to enjoy the tangy taste of hakarl—shark that has been cured with a unique fermentation process during which the meat is buried underground and then hung up to dry for several months. The final product tends to have an ammonia-like smell and sharp flavor and is available at most Icelandic supermarkets.
Súrir Hrútspungar (Sour Ram’s Testicles)
For centuries, Iceland has been a largely rural country that depended primarily on agriculture and fishing to sustain both its economy and its population. As a result, almost no part of any animal is wasted—including its reproductive organs. Traditionally, the ram’s testicles are boiled, fermented and pressed into thin patties for consumption. While they’re no longer a common menu item, they can be found at some butcher shops if you simply must try them.
Svið (Sheep’s Head)
Again, hardy Icelanders have survived by making use of every edible part of the animal. Sheep’s head is still a beloved delicacy throughout the country, although the presentation can be a little shocking to unsuspecting visitors. The entire head—minus the brain—is cooked and served, with the cheek, tongue and eyeballs traditionally being the most popular parts. Pre-cooked svið is available at most grocery stores and is even on the menu at many cafeterias and fast food-style restaurants in Reykjavik.
Leftovers from this dish are often used to make sviðasulta, or sheep’s head jelly, which can be served on rye toast or alongside boiled potatoes and turnips.
Brennivín (“Black Death”)
Need something to wash down your hakarl? Try a shot of brennivin, a traditional Icelandic spirit distilled from fermented grain, potato mash and caraway seed. The name literally translates to “burning wine,” although “black death” is an apt description for travelers trying it for the first time. A fierce debate rages between locals who think it’s delicious and those who find it utterly undrinkable, so why not sample it and figure out where you stand on the issue?
Harðfiskur (Dried Fish)
For centuries, Icelanders have salted and dried fish to preserve it for consumption through the frigid winters. It remains a popular snack, readily available at supermarkets, convenience stores and restaurants throughout the country. Often made using cod or haddock, it’s sometimes eaten with butter to add some moisture to its jerky-like texture.
Slátur (Blood Pudding)
Slátur (Icelandic for “slaughter” is a dish similar to the black pudding commonly served in Ireland and Great Britain. The sheep’s intestines, blood and fat are formed into a log or loaf and then sliced into patties, which can then be boiled or pan-fried. It’s often served sprinkled with cinnamon or sugar, and the taste isn’t bad as long as you don’t think too much about its primary ingredients.
Kútmagar is Iceland’s answer to Scottish haggis. It’s a fish stomach—usually cod—stuffed with fish liver, rye bread crumbs and spices and then boiled for an hour or two. It is traditionally served with boiled potatoes, rye bread and butter.
Hot Spring Rye Bread
Speaking of rye bread, Icelandic rye is a staple in most meals in the Land of Fire and Ice. Their version is dark, slightly sweet and very distinctive, almost always accompanied by a thick layer of butter. In some parts of the country, the dough is placed into wooden casks in the ground near geothermal springs, which then bake the bread over the course of about a day.
Gellur (Cod Tongue)
Technically, gellur is comprised of a fleshy, white, triangle-shaped muscle located under the fish’s tongue. It is cooked in a variety of ways, including boiled, pan-fried and au gratin (probably the tastiest method of preparation).
Kæfa, like the paté eaten around the world, is a paste made from the fatty liver of animals—in Iceland, typically mutton. It may be smooth or coarse and is often spread onto the country’s ubiquitous rye bread.
Saltfiskur (Salted Fish)
Historically, Icelanders salted fish in order to preserve it. This is done by covering it completely in salt and then letting it dry for several days. Prior to cooking it, the fish would be soaked in water to remove enough salt to make it palatable.
With the advent of refrigeration, the salt in the recipe was reduced substantially. Icelandic salted cod remains one of the country’s main exports, especially to Portugal, Greece and Spain. In turn, many Icelanders now prepare their own salted cod with a Spanish or Italian flair. They often cook it with imported olives and tomatoes.
Yes, Icelanders do eat the charming, brightly-beaked little birds that populate the country’s coasts. In the Westman Islands, home to Iceland’s largest puffin colony, lundi is an official state dish. The meat is boiled in milk, broiled in chunks or spiced and smoked in a method similar to pastrami.
Chefs in Iceland are quick to point out that minke whale is not an endangered species. For this reason, it’s fairly common to see it on restaurant menus in the form of kabobs or seared steaks. The meat is dark and oily, with a firm texture and flavor akin to both ahi tuna and red meat.
While skyr’s popularity has spread around the world—you can even find it on supermarket shelves in the U.S.—it’s hard to think of a more quintessential Icelandic dish than this cultured soft cheese similar to yogurt. Made from pasteurized skim milk, it’s high in protein and extremely healthy. Icelanders eat skyr in a variety of forms and with almost any meal: with fruit or muesli at breakfast; as a drink called “drykkur”; as a dipping sauce; or with berries and other sweet toppings as a dessert.
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