Fish are abundant in Icelandic waters. The catch of the day in most Icelandic restaurants is likely to be cod, ling or catfish. There are prolific fishing grounds around the island, so your fish should be fresh when it lands on your plate. Icelanders export majority of their catch, such as cod, haddock, pollock and golden redfish that are all sustainably sourced around Iceland. It is possible to trace Icelandic fish back to the fjord it was caught in, which means that you can find out exactly where it came from.
Icelanders love pastries, and love balls are a uniquely Icelandic treat. A deep-fried ball of flour-based dough with raisins, they strongly resemble the Nordic Christmas pastry, kleina (klenäter), only improving on shape, and obviously, raisins. Icelanders snicker each time they eat love balls since the Icelandic name is equally ambiguous as the English one.
During spring, birch sap is tapped from trees in the eastern part of Iceland to make delicious birch syrup. The syrup is used in a variety of ways, for example as a basis for schnapps and liquors. The taste is unique. Fresh and rather sweet. A piece of nature in a glass.
There is sugary sweet, and then there is dísætt, an extra sweet option. The word likely originates from Denmark, and may originally have referred to the sweetness of breast milk. Today, it usually refers to something on verge of being overly sweet. Just the way we like it.
The fjords of Iceland are long and deep. They are home to many fishing villages that were built around the jobs created around catching fish. Today, fishing is a hi-tech industry that has seen tremendous technological advancement. The Icelandic fishing industry stresses full utilization of the catch. Many of these fishing villages have turned their attention to life sciences, bio technology and other areas related to fish biproducts.
The kitchen is the heart of the household. Where the family assembles and the late night parties gather. The Icelandic word for kitchen is eldhús, combining the words fire (eldur) and house (hús). The word ties us to the past, when people cooked over an open fire in the middle of the home.
Fine dining in Iceland will typically take you through several different courses, perfect for highlighting the different Icelandic ingredients. Fish or other marine-based protein is a traditional first course, often followed by lamb, a favorite ingredient for Icelandic chefs and foodies since they roam the hills and graze on spices such as thyme, adding to the taste of the meat. Typically, a desert at a restaurant involves skyr. Icelanders are proud of this very wholesome product that is made like cheese but tastes like unsweetened yoghurt.
Flatkaka is the oldest type of Icelandic bread, dating back to the settlement in the 9th century AD. Made from rye or barley and sometimes supplemented with herbs, the bread was first baked over an open fire. When Icelanders got stoves, it was cooked directly on the stove without a pan between. Flatkaka literally translates as flat-cake, but in the North of Iceland it is called flatbrauð (flat-bread). Ironically, the northern version is significantly sweeter than the one named as cake. Still popular, traditional toppings include "hangikjöt" (smoked lamb) and smoked trout. You can buy them in supermarkets, grocery stores and bakeries around the country.
Christmas is celebrated on Christmas Eve, December 24. Traditionally, the family will gather at the table at 6 PM to listen to a radio broadcast of the Hallgrímskirkja church bells “ring in the Christmas.” This is followed by a ceremonious dinner. Popular options include smoked lamb, reindeer or the gamebird ptarmigan. Then it is time for presents.
Fall is the season for harvest. Berries are ripe for plucking, potatoes are unearthed, and the lambs are herded from a summer of grazing in the wild. This is the best time to discover the delicacies of Iceland.
The ideology of the New Nordic Cuisine is a big inspiration for Icelandic restaurants, just like Icelandic food traditions inspired the ideology of the New Nordic Cuisine. The new Nordic Food Cuisine was developed by Nordic chefs at the beginning of the century. It highlights local produce and seasonality, while also focusing on wellbeing and ethical production.
A lot of things tend to be “Ice cold” in a country that draws its name from ice, but “einn ískaldur” can only refer to one thing. A fresh, cold beverage brewed from barley and hops. The sale of beer was prohibited in Iceland from 1915-1989. The finer points of beer drinking took a while to catch on in the country, but lately, there has been a boom in local craft beer culture. You’ll find a microbrewery in every region and thanks to the pure Icelandic water, the quality is excellent.
Icelandic herbs are an essential part of Icelandic food culture. The scent of angelica, sheep sorrel, creeping thyme and birch, is a rich part of Icelandic food traditions. They are picked and used as seasoning or food supplements. We also source sea salt locally and hand-harvest it with a method dating back to 1753, whereby clean Arctic seawater is pumped into open pans. There, it is slowly heated with water from natural hot springs. As the water evaporates, crunchy salt flakes are left in the pan. The salt is then mixed with different kinds of herbs, berries or kelp and sold as a gourmet food product.
Iceland is the perfect foodie destination. There is an abundance of quality food produce available, and in recent years there has been an explosion in the number of new and exciting restaurants opening up around the country, led by a new and daring generation of Icelandic chefs. The crowning achievement for this development was the very first Michelin star for an Icelandic restaurant, awarded to Dill restaurant in 2017.
Icelanders have a passion for licorice. The salty taste of licorice is used to infuse everything from candy, to salt and liquors. Icelandic licorice is a lot sweeter and smoother than what you may be familiar with. There is a propensity to mix licorice and chocolate, which some claim to be Iceland’s greatest addition to the world of food.
The taste of traditional everyday food inspires memories for so many Icelanders, that there is a specific word for nostalgic memories of food. These distinctive memories of the taste of the past have inspired exciting dishes for Icelandic chefs, who continue to find new ways to approach the tastes of their youth.
The heat beneath our feet is used in a variety of ways. In geothermal areas in Iceland, there is a tradition of using the ground bake rye bread. It takes the bread 24 hours to bake and it tastes sweet, a bit like caramel. Common toppings include a layer of butter and smoked trout or cheese. Geothermal energy is also used in different kinds of food production such as horticulture, salt production and drying bones and cuttings from fish.
Skyr is the original superfood. It’s a silky-smooth dairy product, naturally rich in protein and fat free. This is a natural choice for the health conscious. Skyr was once made at every farm in Iceland. The culture came from a starter kept from the last batch in the same way as sourdough bread is made today, and the taste would vary between households. On cheat days, adding a little cream to your skyr is totally worth it.
Fish is both a staple at the dinner table, and a major export good. The fishing grounds around Iceland are rich in nutrients, and the cold waters are favorable to many species. But the sea is a cruel mistress. Modern technology ensures most voyages reach a safe harbor, but that has not always been the case. Icelanders have deep respect for the ocean, its bounty and the men and women who brave turbulent seas to bring home the catch.
The perfect Icelandic pancake is wafer-thin and almost see-through. Originally because grain was scarce, but today it is a matter of pride. They are fried on special pancake pans, which are not washed with soap between batches. The older the pan, the better. Pancakes are traditionally served in one of two ways, either rolled up with sugar or folded in quarters with rhubarb jam and whipped cream.
Smoking lamb and fish is an old tradition in Iceland as it helps the food keep longer and is also delicious. Dung was originally used to smoke with, as firewood was scarse. Dung is still sometimes used, and gives a heavy smoke taste, but birch is much more common and gives a lighter taste. Smoked salmon or trout is often offered as a starter or light meal, while smoked meat is often a main course.
Icelandic salmon rivers are considered to be among the best in the world, but permits can be difficult to come by due to popularity. There are many options for lake fishing all around the country. Trout and Arctic char are both common and extremely delicious. Another popular option for fishing enthusiasts is sea angling. The catch may include a wide variety of species, but the most common are cod, haddock and pollock.
Icelandic water is exceptionally pure. Not only is it safe to drink right from the tap, it is usually safe to drink right from a mountain spring. In most cases, bringing bottled water on a trip is unnecessary and will only create plastic pollution. In some places around the country, the hot water may smell of Sulphur. This is because it is geothermal water that comes straight from the ground, usually from about 2-3000m deep boreholes.
In Iceland you can be sure exactly where your food comes from if you choose local ingredients, the name of the farm will more often than not be written on a box of mushrooms and thanks to state of the art technology, Icelandic fish can be traced back to where in our fertile fishing grounds it was caught, before being sent to restaurants or markets abroad. The fish lives in ideal conditions in the waters around Iceland where cold and warm ocean currents meet, creating ideal conditions for fish stocks to thrive.
From late spring to early autumn, Icelandic sheep graze freely in the wild. Sustained by herbs, wild grass and berries that grow on the loose volcanic soil, the diet lends the lean meat its unique, almost gamey taste. Fresh meat is available in September and October whereas frozen meat is available all year round.
Despite challenging growth condition during winter, Icelandic vegetable farmers have found a way to harvest their plants all year round, thanks to geothermal greenhouses. Much of Iceland’s agricultural produce is grown indoors in state-of-the-art, automated greenhouses heated with geothermal energy and electric lights, making Iceland self-sufficient for many kinds of produce. Common Icelandic produce includes tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, mushrooms, cabbage and strawberries. Many farms welcome visitors.
Salmon fishing is a popular summer activity in Iceland, but fishing highly regulated, and permits are in great demand. However, salmon is readily available in Icelandic restaurants. We enjoy it in various ways, smoked, grilled, cured, or as a part of our sushi.
Yndisauki is anything that will add pleasure to an already pleasurable state of affairs. In relation to food, cream on top of a chocolate cake is clearly an yndisauki. The cherry on top, so to speak.
Reindeer were brought to Iceland from Northern Norway around 250 years ago by an order from the king of Norway. They now reside exclusively in the eastern part of the country. Hunting reindeer is highly regulated; the hunting season is early fall. Reindeer meat is a local delicacy, often enjoyed at Christmas as a delicious steak or in meat balls and pâté.
In days of yore, people were forced to adopt a more resilient outlook on food during long Icelandic winters. This meant making full use of all available material. Food was traditionally stored using a combination of techniques involving fermenting, pickling, brining, drying or smoking. This allowed food to go unspoiled through the long Icelandic winter.
While access to food is better and storing methods have been improved upon, Icelanders still like to pay respect to more difficult times by celebrating old traditional Icelandic food. February/March is a time for traditional Mid-winter Fests, where Icelanders gather to celebrate the rising sun, and gorge on old traditional food that is hard to come by the rest of the year. If there is ever a time for a shark and brennivín, this is it.
Iceland enjoys one of the highest life expectancies in the world. A key factor is a nutrient-rich diet. Lýsi is a common breakfast supplement in Iceland. Made from fish liver oil, it has been praised for its health benefits. High protein, low fat options, such as fish, lamb and skyr are also a staple of Icleandic diet.
Öldurhús is an old Icelandic word for a tavern. With prohibition laws outlawing beer in Iceland from 1915 – 1989, a lot of the subtle differences in the vernacular of beer drinking were lost. Öldurhús is now used interchangeably for any sort of establishment that sells alcoholic beverages. Another useful Icelandic word at the Öldurhús is Skál.
The A-Ö of the regions
Want to continue learning? Discover the A-Ö of the seven regions of Iceland below.
There is something magical about the Westfjords, the region that could arguably be labelled "Iceland's best kept secret". Isolation has preserved the region in a relatively unspoiled wilderness, making it a must-see for any serious explorers.
It's all about beautiful contrasts in the North, a land where long valleys and peninsulas are interspersed with big mountains, lava fields and smooth hills carved out by powerful rivers. Go big or go home!
If drifting through picturesque fjords from one warm town to the next is your cup of tea, head to the East. It is home to the country's largest forest, lush farmlands and even the mysterious lake monster in Lagarfljot.
What's so cool about Reykjanes? Not only is it where most visitors set foot in, a geothermal wonder and the home of the spectacular Blue Lagoon, but also a place where lighthouses outnumber villages.
If the regions were pop songs, the South would probably be the chart-topping hit, since it is renowned for its beauty and the home of some o f the country's most visited tourist attractions.
Looking for a crash course in Iceland? Head to the West, since you'll find a little bit of everything there. It's a world where diverse nature, culture and history complement each other, creating a unique experience.