Iceland’s unique take on cuisine boasts a long history of ocean fare, sturdy lamb, dairy and hearty vegetables as the hallmarks of a Nordic diet. Traditional Icelandic food is meant to withstand and endure during long winter months where sunshine rarely graces its shores. When you bite into a traditional Icelandic dish, you’re experiencing a part of the country’s history and tasting your way back in time. But ask a foodie where their favorite places on the planet to eat are, and chances are high that Iceland doesn’t trend on their list.
It makes sense. Specialties like boiled haddock aren’t exactly championed by culinary trendsetters. Nor are they appreciated by discerning palates looking for the world’s exotic fare. But I admit my indignant go-to response of, “What?? You haven’t tried the haddock?!” allows a continued smugness about this not-so-big secret. Icelandic food is welcoming and comforting with an unexpected twist for curious travelers accustomed to big, bold flavors. Icelandic food is both unpretentious and robust in a world that gives celebrity status to over-the-top dishes and flavors.
Ready to eat your way through Iceland? Turn your next vacation to the Land of Fire and Ice into a culinary experience by embracing some of the best traditional dishes. You won’t find whale and puffin on the plate of a true Icelander, but you will find historic gems like Kjötsúpa and the more modern Icelandic ice cream. Here’s where to get started on your Icelandic food adventure.
KJÖTSÚPA – FISKFELAGID FISH COMPANY
If you’ve ever visited Iceland during a crisp winter weekend, a warm cup of Kjötsúpa will delight your taste buds. Rutabagas and carrots brighten up this traditional Icelandic lamb soup crafted from the bony, fatty bits of meat. Tasty and savory, you’ll want to devour this as a last meal before hitting the road.
Locals will tell you the secret behind Kjötsúpa’s flavor is all about the free-roaming sheep. In other words, “My farm is better than their farm,” prevails when comparing the best Kjötsúpa. But you don’t have to wait until winter to find out if you love this Icelandic dish. Order up some Kjötsúpa from a local kiosk or the upscale Fiskfelagid Fish Company and warm your belly for a night of camping out under the stars.
HARÐFISKUR – CAFÉ LOKI
The go-to Icelandic staple of Harðfiskur is a bonafide superfood in a decidedly unsexy package. Created from dried fish, Harðfiskur packed with an incredible amount of protein, putting ancient Icelanders ahead of the curve on the low-carb game. Don’t worry; you can still get all the carbs and ice cream you could ever want along with your Harðfiskur at Café Loki.
Harðfiskur is also teeming with amino acids and all kinds of dense nutrients that health enthusiasts will wax poetic over. Bite into a piece and try to tease apart the haddock, wolfish and cod with a salty finish. A little butter and you’ll feel like you’re sampling a delectable treat.
PLOKKFISKUR – SALKA VALKA
Let’s not mince words. After eating boiled haddock, you’ll probably wonder why those Icelanders don’t just fry it in butter and cover it in fatty goodness. But this is history, people. Let’s honor it by devouring this Icelandic specialty.
You can go ahead and eat haddock boiled in a variety of dishes across the country, or try it served up as Plokkfiskur. This fish stew offers a classic take on Nordic comfort food. Icelandic chefs like the ones at Salka Valka take the haddock and mash it with potatoes and buttery indulgence. Ask for some rye bread and sop up every last bite.
BAKED LAMB – VIÐ VOGINN
Icelandic lamb is arguably the best in the world and slips right off the bone into tender, flavorful dishes. The only downside is you’ll be ruined for life, as any other lamb just seems like frozen dinner fare in comparison. Make it your mission to stop at Við Voginn in Djupivogur and order the baked lamb for an education in culinary genius.
Okay, maybe I’m getting carried away about the genuineness of lamb, but it remains glorious comfort food served best with traditional brown gravy and green peas. And if you can manage to crash an Icelandic Christmas, ask if they’re serving a leg of lamb for their holiday meal. Then insist on staying to savor their customs.
KAFFI KÚ – SKYR
Often just referred to as “Icelandic yogurt,” Skyr is traditionally made from nonfat milk and no sugar. Despite how bland it sounds, this Icelandic food staple is surprisingly no-nonsense delicious. I’m thrilled to see it’s conquered the grocery store shelves around the world, announcing to all other yogurts that they are weak in comparison.
Yes, I thrill over yogurt.
Let’s keep in mind those ancient Vikings needed their strength, and it makes sense they showed up and took names with the fuel of the no-frills Skyr. Meanwhile, their Greek yogurt-eating counterparts lived an indulgent life on all of the full-fat milk and sugar they could find. Today, you can find Skyr just about everywhere in Iceland, but why not devour it from the cozy Kaffi Kú, or Cafe Cow, at a local Garður farm? While you’re there, you really must try their homemade waffles and freshly whipped cream topping. Or take a tour of the farm while the staff packs up a picnic basket for you to take your Skyr on the road.
PYLSUR – BÆJARINS BEZTU
When I buckled up on my IcelandAir flight from New York to Reykjavik, the seatback screen shared some fascinating trivia with me. “The most popular restaurant in Iceland is a hot dog kiosk.” I remember briefly looking around, thinking, “What the hell airline am I flying?” After realizing this hot dog situation was for real, we made it our mission to seek out Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur. This popular hot dog chain attracts locals, tourists and celebs trying to look down-to-earth while devouring them on Instagram.
On a warm summer night when dusk didn’t greet us until the late night hours, we tried one for ourselves. Relatively new on the food scene, the Pylsur is made from lamb fashioned into a long, skinny hot dog formation topped with homemade crispy onions, a sweet brown mustard called pylsusinnep, herbs and capers. Fortunately for us, a nearby balcony full of drunk Icelanders insisted we not forget the remoulade, which was similar to relish. We were hooked. Hot dogs in Iceland really are the best. And now we shall forever shout, “Don’t forget the remoulade!” at each other to signify any topping that was overlooked on absolutely anything we happen to be eating.
GAMLI – ÍSBÚÐ VESTURBÆJARIS
Just because Icelandic food is known for its sturdy staples doesn’t mean it never evolves. I’m misty-eyed with gratitude that Iceland decided to grace us with their ice cream evolution, a treat that I am normally indifferent about anywhere else.
Whether you want to stick to tradition or try something new, Ísbúð Vesturbæjaris is one of the few places that still sells Icelandic “gamli.” This old-school ice cream made from milk is quite tasty, but I admit I prefer the newer sá nýji cream-based treat that’s available just about anywhere in Iceland. Fortunately, Ísbúð Vesturbæjaris serves both versions so you can do your own taste test battle. I recommend doing several with your travel companions just to be sure you get the full experience of this treat.
Unless you’re a frequent traveler to the Nordic corners of the world, eating traditional Icelandic food feels like an exotic, comforting experience that focuses on hearty flavor. You can also branch out and find delicious budget-friendly meals that go beyond the Nordic influence. Ask yourself WWTVD (What Would the Vikings Do), fire up the happy camper, and make it your conquest to eat your way through the history of Icelandic food. End your day with a full belly and happy heart while cozying up to a cool, brisk night under the stars.