When it comes to sampling the local fare in another country, it doesn’t get more intriguing than Iceland. Albeit this distinctive cuisine is quite unusual compared to neighbouring countries, but that doesn’t mean you won’t fall for its warming stews, flavoursome seafood delicacies and hearty meat dishes.
So whether you’re looking to chase the aurora borealis on a northern lights cruise or explore Iceland’s age-old Nordic heritage, read on to find out about must-try food and drink to enjoy when exploring this compelling country.
Must-try food and drink in Iceland
First on the list, we have the popular fish stew plokkfiskur. After all, you can’t visit Iceland without trying one of the country’s fantastic seafood offerings!
Recommended by foodie travel bloggers Sadie and Chris from Fork & Path, the pair told us how this dish is like nothing they’ve ever tasted before.
“Iceland produces some of the best fish stews in the world that’s right up there with the Basque region. If you see plokkfiskur on a menu, it’s a must-try.
“For the best fish and fish stews in Iceland, you must eat at restaurant Tjöruhúsið in Ísafjörður . It’s a buffet-style restaurant overlooking the Iceland Sea, serving predominately seafood dishes. They offer plenty of fish soups, stews, baked dishes, fresh breads, salads, and vegetables, all made with ingredients harvested from within walking distance.”
If you’re feeling brave during your visit to Iceland, you won’t want to pass up an opportunity to try the country’s most infamous dish: fermented shark (Hákarl). Usually sold diced and ready to eat, Hákarl can be bought in grocery stores and found in most eateries.
Not for the faint-hearted, Hákarl was a staple of Iceland’s Viking ancestors, eating it only as a means to survive. As shark is poisonous, fermenting the meat meant it could be safely consumed, and today, this age-old delicacy has become a must-try for daring visitors.
Grilled Horse Fillet
Sadie and Chris told us more about what they made of Iceland’s dynamic foodie scene, recommending one other dish that is a delicacy in Iceland and an absolute must-try.
“Iceland has some unique, and sometimes quite bizarre, dishes. Things like sheep’s head, fish jerky, and fermented shark are traditional and a must-try, but understandably not to everyone’s taste!
“Although it tends to be a bit controversial with many diners from the US and UK, grilled horse fillet is both traditional and delicious that is certainly worth trying if given the chance.”
Likened to vodka and unsweetened schnapps, Brennivín is a popular spirit in Iceland that may not be everyone’s tipple of choice, but one you should certainly try if you want to feel like a local.
“Brennivín can be directly translated as 'burning wine'.” Says Guide to Iceland. “Although it's mostly marketed as 'Black Death'. Brennivín is a schnapps made from fermented potatoes and caraway. What more can you expect from a nation who weren't blessed with legal beer until 1989?”
With an abundance of locally-sourced meats and seafood, you may be surprised to hear that Iceland has its very own traditional yoghurt which has been enjoyed in the country for over a thousand years.
“Many locals still make their own Skyr at home,” Sadie and Chris tell us. “It’s perfect for almost any meal and nothing you can buy anywhere else compares to the fresh Skyr in Iceland.”
Enjoy this age-old dish on its own, with milk or topped with berries and other fruits for a light and nutritious breakfast, dessert or snack.
Icelandic lamb is widely considered to be a gourmet meat and one of Iceland's finest and most often used culinary ingredients, says an article by Extreme Iceland. One of the reasons the flavour is so impeccable is that the lambs are considered one of the purest breeds in the world.
“Lambs in Iceland are not fed on grain or given growth hormones. They roam freely outdoors from spring to autumn; therefore, their diet is wholly natural, consisting of grass, sedge, moss campion and berries.”
Travel blogger and foodie fanatic Nathan from Foodie Flashpacker told us his experience sampling this local delicacy.
“My favourite Icelandic dish was the local lamb. It has a better, cleaner, purer flavour than any other lamb meat that I've ever tried! It's so good that they even use it in pylsur, a world-famous Icelandic hotdog.
“You can find the lamb featured on menus in nearly every restaurant in Reykjavik or if you want to try the pylsur hotdog, find Baejarins Beztu, a hotdog stand which has been named the best in all of Europe.”
Heather, travel blogger at Trimm Travels also loved trying the local lamb during her time in Iceland, instead opting to try it in a warming soup dish.
“Iceland has fantastic food making it hard for me to pick out only one favourite. That said, I think one of my favourite Icelandic specialities would be the traditional Icelandic meat (lamb) soup. This dish can be found in many places around the island, however, I recommend ordering it at Old Iceland in Reykjavík. It is super flavourful, and the portions are perfect!”
Another prevalent dish in Iceland is reindeer. It might not be everyone’s first choice of meat, but you will certainly be glad you tried it. Heather told us about a reindeer dish she couldn’t get enough of in Iceland.
“I have never tried reindeer before, but I highly suggest it. I'd go so far as to say the reindeer meatballs was my favourite individual dish I had while in Iceland. Even if you aren't staying there, have dinner at Hotel Valaskjálf and order the reindeer meatballs with blueberries and mushrooms served alongside tagliatelle pasta. The flavour combinations with the tender meatballs and perfectly cooked pasta were amazing!”
If you’ve ever tried German rye bread, you’ll certainly want to give Iceland’s version a try. Although this dark-coloured bread can be baked in a pot, it is often buried beside a hot spring and steamed in a special wooden casket.
“This bread is crustless, dark brown, dense and its taste is quite sweet,” says Extreme Iceland. “It is great with butter, smoked salmon mutton pâté, hangikjöt (smoked lamb), or with pickled herring or cheese. Icelanders often eat this bread as a side dish with the Icelandic fish dish, plokkfiskur. You can buy this bread in most grocery stores in Iceland.”
Icelandic Craft Beer
When visiting Iceland, you won’t want to pass up the opportunity to sip a cold pint of locally-brewed craft beer, a trend which only started over the last few decades.
“In the past, downtown bars predominantly served mainstream lagers such as Víking, Gull or Carlsberg, and for a long time, Icelandic beer culture simply didn't develop,” says an article by Guide to Iceland. “This is in part due to the fact that in the early 20th century, Icelanders perceived the act of drinking beer to be unpatriotic - beer was the national drink of Denmark, from whom Iceland was trying to gain independence. In fact, beer was once considered so unpatriotic that it was banned in the country until 1989.”
Iceland Monitor has a few suggestions on where to try one of these rich and silky brews on a brewery tour and beer tasting session.
“There are many small craft breweries in Iceland and a new one seems to pop up every year. There are tours available in many of those, but if you want to compare and taste many types there are four bars in Reykjavik that specialise in craft beers and have local beers on tap: Microbar, Skúli Craft Bar, Bjórgarðurinn and last but not least Bryggjan Brugghús. Bryggjan has its very own brewery in the backroom and on tap you can find both their own brew and beer from other Icelandic breweries, they also offer tours and short seminars on Icelandic brews.”
Things to consider about Icelandic cuisine
Icelandic cuisine is vastly underappreciated
With a highly unusual array of dishes to choose from, it seems travellers can be put off Icelandic cuisine with the country’s gastronomy having been given a poor reputation. But Nathan maintains that this is untrue.
“Everyone told me before I went to Iceland to not expect much from the food. I didn't find this to be true at all! I love all of the fresh fish dishes and interesting local fare – even Brennivín!”
Smoked food is intensely flavoured
If you’re a fan of smoked foods, Sadie and Chris say to be aware that when Icelanders say something is smoked, they mean smoked.