By Claudia Posada
Iceland is known as a must-visit destination for wild adventurers, free to roam in its marvellous countryside, admire its billowing waterfalls and soak up breathtaking views. But how much is known about its eclectic cuisine?
The Icelandic cuisine that we know today is highly sought after, as it fuses the weird and the wonderful, from sheep's heads eaten whole (Svið), to deliciously fresh seafood platters. However, Icelandic food has not always been so imaginative and creative. Undoubtedly, Icelandic food has greatly evolved; for centuries, Icelanders struggled with their resources, particularly during long and cold winters. Historically, the country's lack of sunlight hindered hunting and fishing possibilities, and the country’s secluded positioning under the Arctic Circle meant that importing produce from elsewhere was challenging. Even in recent history we have seen great change - prior to the 1980s it was illegal to drink beer, and the food was far more simplistic. Thankfully today, technological progress, international influence, and the use of geothermal energy resources have resulted in a culinary revolution, and Iceland is now known for its quirky and tasty dishes.
The colourful capital, Reykjavik, is now an up and coming hub for foodies, filled with a wonderful accolade of restaurants to dine in. A quick restaurant hunt in Iceland will suffice to discover how diverse Icelandic cuisine really is, from their haggis equivalent of liver sausage, to dried fish (Harðfiskur), coated in salty butter. Traditional Icelandic foods include seafood, potatoes, lamb, and a creamy yoghurt known as skyr. Those with a sweet tooth are also in luck, as Iceland has some delicious bakeries to potter into, as well as their own special waffles and pancakes which often appear in dessert menus. As well as traditional Icelandic establishments, Reykjavik is home to international fare, from high-end French restaurants to international cafés. Here we will take you through the country’s culinary highlights, provide insight into some of the top eateries in Reykjavik, and finally offer some practical budgetary advice to eating out in Iceland.
Skyr (pronounced skee-er) has been part of Icelandic culture for nearly 1,000 years. It is one of the country’s most popular low-fat dairy products, viewed as a staple household good for its versatility. Its taste is considered to be a mix between yoghurt and cheese, and it is widely used with a variety of dishes. It can accompany the sweet and the savoury, from desserts, to savoury meals as a side dish. High in protein and nutritional value, and low in sugar, skyr is still wonderfully creamy and smooth in texture. Unlike Greek Yoghurt which has a slightly sour tang, skyr is sweeter in taste. Icelandic shops stock it in a variety of flavours, including strawberry, vanilla and blueberry.
Skyr is an exceptionally tasty topping on Iceland’s dense rye bread, or rúgbrauð in Icelandic. This crustless loaf is wholesome, hearty and nutritious, often accompanied with butter, smoked lamb, mutton pâté, or pickled herring. Rafn Hilmarsson, the owner of Laugavautn Fontana geothermal baths, is known for his traditional way of cooking rye bread - under the ground, in a sizzling geothermal pit. “A lot of people still bake this way in Laugavautn,” reflected Hilmarsson, “[...] It’s a tradition that we put a stone on top to let the other locals know that we are baking here.” When cooked using this method, sometimes it is referred to as “hverabrauð”, which pertinently translates as “hot spring bread”. Be sure to head to Hveragerði to try this geyser-cooked rye bread, for this town has many hot springs.
Plokkfishkur is a traditional, simple Icelandic fish stew, a fusion of an array of high-quality ingredients. It is made up of white fish (typically cod or haddock), potatoes, wheat flour, milk, butter, salt and pepper. More comprehensive recipes introduce ingredients such as bearnaise sauce, cheese, chives, bay leaves, curry, and chicken stock. This wholesome meal is heartwarming, and perfect for winter. It is commonly eaten with rye bread, topped with lots of creamy butter of course.
Harðfiskur is a type of dried fish popular in Iceland, and is certainly worth a try for its unusual texture. The process used to make Harðfiskur is similar to that of maturing cheese - it is produced by drying fish (most commonly cod, but wolffish and haddock are also used). Many eat it like a snack, dipped in salted butter. It is often used as a satisfying savoury substitute for popcorn, or crisps. The fish is caught in the fresh Icelandic ocean waters, and dried in the fresh air. We have the Vikings to thank for this tasty snack, as they stored their fish in this manner in their time. Today, some do dry the fish in their own homes to make Harðfiskur, a technique which requires a bit of practice and the right conditions.
Pylsur (hot dog)
You may well be surprised when you see hot dogs as a suggested Icelandic dish, but in fact, this sociable meal is hugely popular, arguably for the delicious variety of toppings you can whack on top. Unlike a traditional American hot dog, pylsur fuses beef, lamb and pork, and the meat tends to be high quality. If you state that you would like a hot dog with “The Works”, your hot dog will be covered with a variety of condiments: fried onions, raw onions, ketchup, sweet mustard, and a remoulade sauce (a mayonnaise-based sauce with sweet relish). If you fancy ordering a pylsur in Icelandic, have a go with your language skills and confidently state “eina með öllu” when you get to the counter, literally meaning “one with everything”.
A local favourite, hangikjöt is a type of smoked lamb traditionally associated with the Icelandic Christmas period. It can be eaten both hot and cold, and is typically served with potatoes, white (béchamel) sauce, pickled red cabbage and peas. Icelandic lamb is known to be of a very high quality, as they are bred in healthy conditions - they are free to roam, and graze on fresh plants and herbs.
Now this may seem odd to recommend Vatn, (water), but in fact, Iceland is famous for how fresh and pure its drinking water is. Water undoubtedly plays a huge part in Icelandic culture, as it covers a whopping 2,750km²of the country’s surface area. Some have argued that the reason that Icelanders have wonderful skin is down to the water that they drink. In Iceland, you can freely drink water from the tap, or even from a river or creek if you are outside. The range of water-based activities on offer here are also truly amazing; from scuba diving, to whale watching, ice-caving and snorkelling tours. Water also plays an important role in Norse mythology, and Iceland’s waterfalls have fantastic stories behind them.
Whilst in Iceland, be sure to have a taste of their traditional schnapps, known as Brennivín - Iceland’s signature flavoured spirit. It’s nickname is unnervingly “Black Death” and it has a fierce black label - In Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill 2, Michael Madsen is seen to be drinking the popular local drink. Brennivín developed this nickname as it was previously prohibited. When made legal once more, it was given this ominous black label and a skull warning to deter people from drinking the beverage. Historically, this drink was used to wash your mouth of Icelandic rotting shark during the pagan festival of Þorrablót. Today, it is used as a mixer in cocktails, and the stark skull warning has turned into a less aggressive logo - a map of Iceland.
What to avoid
Iceland is also known for its more unusual dishes, some of which are controversial to say the least. Such examples include fermented shark, whale, and puffin. Contrary to popular belief, minke whale is no longer a traditional dish in Iceland, and locals themselves would tell you to avoid this dish, for the unnecessary slaughter of whales. Outreach campaigns have sought to discourage locals from trying whale, and to make positive culinary decisions when eating out.
Places to eat and drink in Reykjavik
Kaloportid Flea Market
Located in Reykjavik's old harbour, the Kolaportid flea market (which loosely translates as “The Coal Yard”) is the largest market in Iceland. Although it is somewhat chaotic, it is a dream for any collector fiends and foodies, as it sells a wide array of goods, from vintage clothing, to traditional Icelandic foods. Its name originates from its previous location, as it opened in April 1989 in a car park, “Kolaport”, next to the Central Bank of Iceland. Once you have overcome the initial smell (which is somewhat acrid), this place has real charm. Make headway with your haggling skills and browse the extensive objects and delicacies on offer here.
Address: Tryggvagata 19, Reykjavik
Awarded the “Best Hot Dog Stand In Europe” by the Guardian in August 2006, to this day Bæjarins Beztu remains hugely popular. Hot-dog fanatics should be sure to head to this food truck, considered to be the best place to try hot dogs in town. Indeed, its name literally translates as “Town’s Best”. The place in itself is unsuspecting, and you will most certainly have to queue, which adds to its local charm. The price of an individual hot dog is also a bargain, at $3 a piece.
Address: Tryggvagata 1, Reykjavik 101
Founded in 2008, Reykjavik Roasters is known for having some of the best coffee in Iceland. Their coffee comes from a range of countries known for its exquisite quality: Brazil, Colombia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Costa Rica and Peru. Reykjavik Roasters strive to produce high quality brews - they roast and sample batches of coffee regularly to make sure customers are drinking the best. If you are not a coffee fan, be sure to tuck into one of their hot chocolates or selection of teas. Have a go at playing your own vinyl whilst appreciating the wall art and soaking up the atmosphere. Enjoy Roaster’s vintage feel and friendly service. This cosy, independent café has two locations, on Kárastígur and Brautarholt street.
Address: Kárastígur 1, 101 Reykjavík, or Brautarholt 2, 105, Reykjavík
Head to café Haiti for heart-warming coffee, delicious pastries, cakes, and traditional Icelandic delicacies such as plokkfiskur served with rye bread. Located in the Old Harbour, the atmosphere of this cosy café is relaxing, its ingredients fresh and the food tasty. The coffee originates from Haiti, hence the name of the establishment. Elda Thorisson-Faurelien founded Café Haiti in 2007. Originally from Haiti herself, Elda brings local expert knowledge to her work, having worked in a coffee field from a young age. Here you will get a real feel for diverse types of coffee, from your standard Italian espresso, café latte and cappuccino, to your Turkish and Arabic coffees. Enjoy a wholesome breakfast here whilst peering out onto the harbour. The interior is simple but charming and quaint, with signature wooden beams on the ceilings, and a friendly bright blue façade.
Address: Geirsgata 7b, 101 Reykjavík
Located right in the heart of Reykjavik, this chic seafood eatery is known for its exquisite lobster, shellfish and langoustine. For non-seafood eaters, there are plenty of alternatives, from beef and game to veggie options. Its gourmet cuisine is traditionally French, but also has a creative Nordic touch. The menu, which offers a fusion of styles, makes for varied and interesting dishes. Its building was constructed in 1838, which explains the historic and romantic décor of the interior. Its elegant design will make you feel right at home, with its leather couches, historic paintings and classical Icelandic ceramics adorning the restaurant’s walls, all resulting in an intimate atmosphere.
Address: Amtmannsstígur 1, Reykjavik
Kopar, located on the old harbour, is brimming with character, with its rustic interior, exposed brick feature walls and signature wooden beams. It is simultaneously intimate and open, as its large windows provide panoramic views of the harbour whilst the size and décor of the restaurant provides for a cosy atmosphere. Be sure to sample one of their tasty cocktails or wines on the scenic terrace overlooking the harbour. Head chef and owner of Kopar, Ylfa Helgadóttir, has received a number of awards for her cooking, and she is part of the national team of chefs. The food is creative, diverse and exciting - in fact, this restaurant was one of the first in Reykjavik to serve Icelandic rock crab. If you are undecided what to order and accompanied with a group of unfussy eaters - why not try out their diverse tasting menu, known as their “Adventure” selection, including the classic ‘Adventure’, ‘Fish Adventure’, and ‘Appetizer Adventure’.
Address: Geirsgata 3, 101 Reykjavík
Established in 2012, Slippbarinn is Reykjavik’s first cocktail bar. It arguably gave birth to the growing cocktail culture in the city. Since its opening, more cocktail bars have popped up, provoking a cocktail revolution in the trendy capital. Slippbarinn offers a wide range of eclectic cocktails, each with their own unique titles, from “Hiphopopotamus” to the amusing “How do you like rum apples?” If you are hungry, not to fear, as they also have an extensive food menu, including a morning brunch option. Happy hour runs every day from 15:00 - 18:00 PM, and every Wednesday at 21:00 PM you can enjoy a performance of the local Don Lockwood band whilst sipping on a negroni. If you are keen to try Brennivín, sample their “Svartafell” cocktail, which combines brennivín, lemon, montenegro, rasberry, dot cream, eggwhite, and rhubarb bitters.
Address: Mýrargata 2, 101 Reykjavik
Eating out in Iceland comes with a price, but certainly is worth it for the high-quality standard of the restaurants, and their ingredients. Be aware that fish platters are normally cheaper than ordering a meat-based dish. If you are keen to save money when eating out, consider going out for lunch instead of dinner, as lunch menus will often offer a deal, for a soup and fish of the day. These are very good value for those not wanting to splash out as much. Ordering alcohol with your meal will also significantly bump up the price of the bill per person, bearing in mind that a bottle of house costs roughly £35 (45 USD). If you are on a low budget, but still want to try some of Iceland’s best, be sure to head to aforementioned Bæjarins Beztu hot dog stand for a mere $3 meal.
Iceland food and drink prices:
Lunch: approximately 25 - 35 USD (£20 - £30 per person)
Dinner: approximately 35 - 55 USD (£40 - £60 per person)
Cost of a beer: approximately 10 USD (£8)
Make it happen
We hope this has inspired you to head to this extraordinary country and sample some of its wonderfully eclectic cuisine. Feel free to get into contact with our handpicked local experts in Iceland, who will be able to create your perfect tailor-made holiday. Alternatively, give us a call during working hours on +44 (0) 117 325 7898.