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Guide your senses through the immense power and awe of nature with these fascinating Icelandic foods, and delve into one of Europe’s most unique, raw, and historic cuisines.
Iceland’s rugged geography and harsh climate mean the inhabitants were heavily reliant on seafood and animal products, and even though today’s Iceland is laced with a generous amount of European influence, the cuisine is still built on a foundation of resourceful dishes and historic cooking techniques.
Buckle up for mindblowing flavors and intriguing fusions, as we discover the taste of Iceland through some of its most iconic dishes as recommended by a local.
1 – Kjötsúpa (Meat Soup)
This traditional soup is made of meat broth, usually from lamb, with potatoes, turnips, and carrots being the main ingredients, though this beloved recipe can vary from household to household. From the 19th century onwards, the dish was developed to include dried herbs, now known as meat soup herbs, and grains such as rice or barley.
The meat in the soup varies from salted, cheaper meats (“saltkjöt”) to more tender, succulent cuts of lamb or beef. Kötsúpa was traditionally only prepared at Christmas and the festive period, but in time, it became a daily staple in Icelandic cuisine, and it’s now often prepared on Sundays.
2 – Lambalæri (Leg of Lamb)
An equivalent to British cuisine‘s Sunday roast, Lambalæri is a very traditional dish of oven-roasted leg of lamb. Icelandic lamb is hugely popular across the island and can be prepared in various ways.
A leg of lamb is the star in this traditional homemade Sunday meal, which is served with green peas (if possible, from the Icelandic brand “ORA“), pickled red cabbage, sugar-browned potatoes and a creamy mushroom sauce.
A more modern version of Lambalæri includes sweet potatoes, carrots, and other roasted vegetables. There is also the option of trying different types of marinated lamb, such as a blueberry marinate, or a more traditional Icelandic mountain herbs marinate.
3 – Hangikjöt (Smoked Lamb, Christmas Dish)
The literal translation of this traditional dish is “hung meat,” and hangikjöt is usually eaten on Christmas day with ORA green peas, pickled red cabbage, boiled potatoes, and a semi-sweet sauce (béchamel) made from flour called “uppstúfur” or “jafningur.”
Hangikjöt is first salted and then smoked for a few weeks in a special smoke room. It can be eaten either as a hot or cold dish and is also a popular topping for Icelandic flatbread, where it is thinly sliced, and spread over a thick layer of butter that coats the flatbread.
Hangikjöt is traditionally made from lamb, mutton, or horse meat.
4 – Svið (Sheep Head)
One of the more traditional dishes in Iceland has been around for centuries and comes from a time when a vast majority of the nation suffered from extreme poverty, hence nothing could be wasted.
The sheep’s head is prepared for cooking by being cut in half, cleaned, and any remnants of hair burned off. It is then boiled in slightly salted water for about an hour before serving. Nowadays, sheep head is a far less common dish, but it can be tried at the mid-winter festival Þorrablót.
5 – Bjúgur og Uppstúfur (Sausage Made from Horse/Sheep Meat with a Sweet Sauce)
Bjúgur is a long, thick sausage made from either lamb or horse meat. It is salty and smoked, and this traditional food is closely connected to one of the 13 Yule lads of Iceland: Bjúgnakrækir.
The legend goes that Bjúgnakrækir, or the sausage stealer, comes to town on the 20th of December every year and steals sausages from various households, so it is always a good idea to keep a close eye on them!
Bjúgur are boiled in water and then served with “uppstúf,” the same béchamel sauce enjoyed with Hangikjöt, boiled potatoes, green peas, and, occasionally, boiled turnips.
6 – Sviðasulta (Sheep‘s Head Jam)
Sviðasulta is one of the classic historic Norse-inspired dishes, born out of a need to use all parts of the animal when making food.
While today it is far less common, the jam is still enjoyed around the mid-winter festival season of Þorrablót. It is made from all of the discarded pieces of the sheep’s head as well as the sheep‘s head itself, which are boiled and mashed to a jam-like consistency.
Both the meat of the head and the various other parts are then mixed together and kept in a tightly packed container until the mixture forms a kind of gelatine around itself.
The gooey gelatine mash is then cut into smaller cubes and refrigerated to be consumed over the course of a few days. It is often served with traditional flatbread or rye bread.
7 – Hrútspungar (Ram‘s Testicles)
Much like the fermented shark, hrútspungar is not an everyday dish, but rather a celebratory meal that is served on occasions such as Christmas or at a þorrablót.
Hrútspungar is a dish of ram‘s testicles, usually preserved in some sort of whey, making them pickled or sour, or as pressed gelatine jam similar to the sheep‘s head jam, which is similar to that of pâté.
8 – Blóðmör (Blood Sausage/Pudding)
Blóðmör is very similar to British black pudding, but it’s made from sheep or lamb blood. The blood is mixed with water, salt, and rye flour and placed in pouches that are usually sewn from the sheep‘s stomach, similar to haggis.
The mixture is then boiled and either served hot with potatoes or cold with flatbread. A more modern version of blóðmör includes various spices such as cinnamon, local mountain spices, and raisins. The dish remains popular to this day, and you can find different variations of it at the grocery store.
9 – Lifrapylsa (Liver Sausage/Pudding)
Similar to the blood pudding blóðmör, lifrapylsa is made from the innards of the sheep, the liver, and kidneys, mixed together with rye flour and water. It is traditionally stuffed in pouches made from the sheep‘s stomach.
The dish is best served cold (after boiling) and is a popular side dish with the infamous Skyr yogurt. When eaten hot, it is served with a side of boiled potatoes and local turnips.
10 – Plokkfiskur og rúgbrauð (Plucked Fish Stew and Rye Bread)
This traditional dish initially came about from leftover boiled fish, usually cod or haddock, that was grated or “plucked” to make a new, and rather delicious, fished-based stew. Potatoes, cheese, and creamy béchamel sauce made from milk are often added to the stew before it is baked in the oven.
In fact, in time, this traditional meal was even seen as a great way for parents to get kids to eat leftover fish and has become a delicacy in Iceland over the years. Plokkfiskur is best enjoyed with traditional rye bread (a dense, sweet type of bread) and a good dollop of butter.
11 – Kæstur Hákarl (Fermented Shark)
Fermented shark is an uncommon delicacy, traditionally served around January and February as part of the celebration of mid-winter, or “Þorrablót” as it is called in Iceland.
The shark used in the dish is usually Greenland shark that has been fermented and dried for around five months before it is consumed. It smells very strongly of ammonia and is served in bite-sized cubes, washed down with a shot of Brennivín, the Icelandic akvavit.
The shark liver is commonly boiled down and made into capsules of shark oil which are very rich in omega-3, locally called Lýsi.
12 – Harðfiskur (Dried Fish)
Dried fish is a true delicacy in Iceland, best enjoyed with a thick spread of cold butter. Traditionally, this dish is prepared by hanging cod or haddock along the Icelandic coastline, where it dried in the cold, salty ocean wind.
This snack, although expensive, is packed with protein and nutrients. You can find a great selection of dried fish in Iceland’s only flea market Kolaportið, located in Reykjavík.
13 – Síld (Herring in Various Marinades)
Herring has long been a staple in the traditional Icelandic household, with its various pickled marinates and different ways of consuming it. In the 1960s and 1970s, Iceland was graced with a herring fishing boom in the north of the country, meaning the fish become hugely popular in the Icelandic diet.
During the holiday season, you can find many different types of marinated herring. It is a popular dish to include at the Icelandic Christmas buffets, known as “Jólahlaðborð,” where traditional and modern Icelandic Christmas food is served.
Herring is usually enjoyed on bread, preferably Icelandic rye bread, with a generous amount of butter. You can also try herring in many different ways, with one popular version consisting of boiling the herring in salt and serving it with butter-fried onion. The choices are endless!
14 – Soðin ýsa og Kartöflur (Boiled Haddock and Potatoes)
This is a staple dish of many Icelandic households, and there is even a kind of unofficial tradition of having fish on Mondays in Iceland.
Haddock and cod are the most popular choices of fish in this dish, along with “saltfiskur,“ which is cod that has been salted in crates for up to two weeks. This simple meal is prepared by boiling the fish in slightly salted water until it becomes white and breaks apart easily.
It is then served with boiled potatoes and a delicious sauce made from melted butter and diced onion. Ketchup has also become a popular addition for kids. The leftovers, if there are any, can then be made into a dish known as plokkfiskur.
15 – Kæst Skata (Fermented Skate)
Fermented skate is a dish that is commonly only made once a year in Iceland, on the 23rd of December, or “Þorláksmessa.” This dish has been around for centuries and is a huge part of Icelandic culture.
Kæst skata is essentially rotten, salted, and fermented skate that has been boiled for hours. It is served with boiled potatoes and turnips with a side of hamsatólg, which is the boiled-down fat from the lamb.
Due to the smell and the fact it lingers on your clothes, hair, and home for days after it has been boiled, many locals today prefer to go to restaurants to enjoy this traditional meal.
16 – Skyr (Skyr, Cultured Type of Yogurt)
Skyr has been a dish since the era of the Vikings and has only grown in popularity over the years. It is a high-protein, low-fat cultured yogurt made from milk, which has a rich and somewhat sour taste.
A classic Icelandic dish consists of plain skyr with brown sugar stirred into it to make it sweet, topped with some fresh cream “Rjómi“ and blueberries that were picked during the harvest season in August. This classic dish can be enjoyed for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
Today you can find many different flavors of Skyr, ranging from crème brulé to strawberry cheesecake, and Iceland has even started exporting it to countries such as the United States and the UK.
17 – Pönnukökur (Icelandic Pancakes)
Icelandic pancakes are very much a unique dish, and far from the fluffy American pancakes most of us have come to know and love.
These pancakes are usually made from a batter with fatty, high-percentage milk (Nýmjólk, 3.5% fat), and cooked on a special pancake pan, that preferably has been passed down from your great-grandmother. These pans, in a similar vein to cast iron skillets, should never be cleaned, helping elevate the flavor of each pancake made.
Icelandic pancakes are thin, similar to crepes, and are served rolled, topped with sugar or Icelandic whipped cream (“þeyttur rjómi”), and rhubarb jam.
18 – Hjónabandssæla (Happy Marriage Cake/Oatmeal and Jam Cake)
Happy marriage cake is a crumbly, oatmeal cake, that became popular in Iceland during the 1950s. The recipe for a Happy marriage cake differs throughout households, with everyone claiming that their grandmother’s recipe is the best!
Happy marriage cake is essentially made from a mixture of butter, eggs, and oats that, once mixed, is pressed and topped with a thick type of jam, typically homemade rhubarb jam.
Once prepared, the cake is baked in a very hot oven. The cake is served warm with whipped cream (the Icelandic “Rjómi“) and a cup of hot drip coffee, for the perfect afternoon snack.
19 – Ástarpungar (Ball-Shaped Type of Doughnut with Raisins)
This ball-shaped fried pastry became a staple in Icelandic culture around the 1930s and is fried using the same oil (usually palm oil) as is used for frying kleinur.
Ástarpungar are similar to doughnuts, but crispier, and include raisins. The bakeries of Iceland IKEA, in particular, serve delicious versions of this beloved dish. Ástarpungar translates to “balls of love” and are best enjoyed with a hot cup of drip coffee.
20 – Kleinur (Fried Dough, similar to Doughnuts)
Kleinur is one of Iceland’s most traditional pastries. Kleinur are again similar to conventional doughnuts, but instead, taste closer to sweet bread.
You can get kleinur from Icelandic grocery stores, usually in bags of 10 or 15, or you can try them at a local bakery. Some homemade kleinur recipes include cumin seeds, but every household has its own way of making them.
Making kleinur is an all-day activity as the process can be lengthy. Because of this, it is common to make big batches of kleinur, then freeze some of them to enjoy at a later date.
21 – Grjónagrautur með Kanil Sykri (Rice Pudding with Cinnamon Sugar)
Rice pudding is a common dish in many cuisines around the world, including in Iceland. On a cold winter day, this Icelandic take on rice pudding will warm you up from the inside. It is a semi-sweet, creamy pudding made by slowly boiling rice in milk and then serving it with a topping of a special mixture of cinnamon and white sugar.
Rice pudding is traditionally served during the Christmas season, and many Icelanders eat this on Christmas eve as lunch or a starter before dinner. Commonly, a single almond is mixed into one of the puddings, and the person that finds the almond gets a small gift, such as a deck of cards or a book.
Variations of this meal include the addition of butter, using different types of grains, or even adding some vanilla extract to it.
Icelandic Food Summary
A cuisine steeped in history and harnessing the purity and freshness of Iceland’s mesmerizing geography, Icelandic food takes you on a truly unique journey back to the time of the Vikings and the island’s early settlers.
While European influence has modernized Icelandic food through the ages, there’s no denying that the cuisine is built on a strong foundation of dishes and techniques practiced for hundreds of years.
There’s so much unique and exciting food to try in Iceland, and a whole host of heritage, tradition, and history to discover along the way!
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Contributor: Anna Lara Arnadottir is an Icelandic content writer, raised all over the world but currently living in Reykjavík and studying for a master’s in publishing and editing.
Images licensed via Shutterstock