Many people travel to Iceland for the beautiful sights and adventurous treks. However, there is a uniqueness to Icelandic cuisine that you cannot find anywhere else in the world. Iceland is also one of few developed countries without a McDonald’s (they closed down after the financial crisis in 2009 due to difficulty with shipping ingredients over) and no Starbucks. It’s food scene is filled with locals and expats creating new and traditional cuisines. Here are a few food items that I’ve tried in Reykjavik that is considered to be classic Icelandic cuisine. Give it a try, because you never know when the next time you would get to eat some of these delicacies ever again!
1) Icelandic Hot Dogs
In the middle of Reykjavik, there is a hot dog stand that serves Icelandic hot dogs called Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur. Named the best food in all of Iceland by Condé Naste magazine and Anthony Bourdain, these hot dogs are a foot long, made of mostly lamb and a little pork and beef. The hot dog is topped with white onions, crispy fried onions, ketchup, sweet brown mustard (pylsusinnep), and a remoulade sauce made with mayo, capers, mustard, and herbs. You can chose your toppings, but the best way to eat it is with everything. Oh, and definitely order 2. After you get one and bite into it, you will immediately regret not buying a 2nd one. Trust me on this.
Seabird and waterfowl meat is quite common throughout Iceland. If you’re up for trying it, puffin is probably the most commonly found seabird in restaurant menus. You have to look past the cuteness of the bird and just eat it. I had it at a steak restaurant in Reykjavik and had it served two ways: first smoked puffin and the second as grilled. Most steak restaurants will serve puffin. The meat was red (not like most other bird meat which is white) and it tasted like a gamey liver. It was definitely interesting, but not another dish I would try anytime soon. Between the two options, I liked the smoked puffin better.
3) Minke Whale
In many countries, whale hunting is banned and it’s meat is not allowed to be sold. In Iceland, Minke whale is a type of whale that is supposedly very common and not considered endangered. However, for myself it was one of those “OK – I’ll try it once, but only once” moments. Minke whale is also commonly found in steakhouses throughout Iceland. We had it cooked rare – medium/rare. It was a smart move because if it’s overcooked, definitely becomes super chewy and hard to eat. The insides were a reddish purple color and it tasted like the texture of beef but had a slightly fishy flavor, almost tuna like. It had a slight and subtle sour after taste to it. Also not a huge fan, but glad I tried it at least once.
4) Fermented Dried Shark and Brennivín
Known as one of the most traditional dishes and well-known (or infamous) dishes of Iceland, dried shark or Hákarl is definitely the most interesting one on this list. It’s actually rotten Greenland shark that is fermented, smoked for 4-5 months, and dried. Fresh Greenland shark is actually poisonous, so the shark has to rot before it can be cured. The smell and taste are very pungent and have a strong ammonia smell to it. When eating it, the portions are usually cubed on a toothpick. There is a little tinge on your tongue feeling that is chemically and the shark meat is quite chewy. Not recommended for picky eaters, but definitely an experience.
Also, after eating it, there’s usually a shot of brennivín served with it. The liquor is a clear unsweetened schnapps made of fermented grain or potato and is served cold. It has a spicy, licorice flavor and tastes almost like Jägermeister. Try these things at Cafe Loki in Reykjavik.
5) Fish and Chips
A more normal item on the list, Iceland is really known for it’s varieties of fish. I went to a place called “Icelandic Fish and Chips” and it was great and the prices were pretty reasonable. They serve different types of fried fish with potato wedges and various dipping sauces. We tried rosemary, garlic, and a roasted tomato sauce. All were very delicious. I would recommend getting a type of fish that is not commonly found back home. I tried the plaice. There’s also haddock, halibut, and herring.
6) Open Faced Sandwiches – Smørrebrød
This delicacy is commonly found throughout Scandinavia and is more of a Danish dish. However, if you don’t have time to visit Denmark and you want to try something delicious and simple, definitely try and open faced sandwich. These can be found in many cafes throughout the city and is a typical lunchtime meal. Traditional ones include smoked fishes such as salmon or herring, egg or potato, or various meats such as lamb. I ordered one with head cheese on it (which is not cheese at all), but a terrine or a jelly of head meat from lamb. These are typically served cold and on a piece of rye bread with a spread like mayo on the bottom. It’s definitely a great dish.
7) Sheep’s Head
I did not get to try this, but I really wanted to. Unfortunately, I went during winter time and it was hard to find. Apparently it wasn’t in season, as this is more commonly eaten in the spring times. This dish is called Svið in Icelandic. However there is place at the bus terminal that serves this on a regular basis called “Fljótt og Gott“. Definitely will try it the next time I’m there. I heard that the cheeks, tongue and eyes are the best parts.
8) Maltextrakt – Malt Drink
Not a food item, but still a very popular soft drink in Iceland. It tastes similar to root beer, but with hints of licorice and barley. During Christmas times, people mix it with Applesín. You can find this in any convenience store or grocery store throughout the country.
Have you ever been to Iceland? I’d love to hear about your favorite or most memorable food/drink items in the comments below. For additional lists, check out Wikipedia for a list of traditional Icelandic cuisine, this article from Serious Eats where a writer experiences Icelandic food for the first time, or from Já an Icelandic travel guide who lists out their top 5 favorite and least favorite items.