Eating My Way Through Iceland

June 13, 2010

Just when you thought you'd heard enough about Iceland this year, I'm here to tell you another tale. Fortunately this one does not involve volcanoes or cancelled flights.

This past December, I traveled to the North Atlantic nation for four days of exploration.  Before leaving for my trip I spent time reading all about the country- the diverse geology, the culture, the places to visit, Icelandic curse words, but nothing was as interesting as the food. What is a trip without the tastes, after all? I love to try new things, even when they sound slightly scary at first (should we consider this a bad thing?). The dozens of guide books I consulted informed me that Icelandic cuisine focuses heavily on animal products, most notably lamb, seafood, and dairy. Sounded good so far. Then I read that a number of popular dishes included smoked puffin, rotten shark meat, reindeer, and horse. Not sounding so good at this point. But despite the few times I may have cringed at the thought of digesting whale, I knew that I should give them a chance.

By the end of my stay, I had tried almost all of the peculiar (slightly stomach-turning) delicacies and discovered that the dishes were not quite as daunting as they had seemed. In fact, some were downright delectable. Since most of them involve similar preparation: curing, smoking, pickling, often they shared a similar salted, briny flavor.

Among my favorite dishes were those involving Icelandic lamb and seafood. Salmon and haddock stand out most notably. Another delicious discovery was skyr, an Icelandic yogurt made from goat or sheep milk. A twin of greek-style yogurt, it is ultra-thick and tangy, available in the U.S. but with quite the hefty price tag. And then there was the butter. Oh the butter. Luscious, creamy, slightly salty, smooth, everything that you could want in a spread. I won't recount the number of times I thought about leaving the bread out of the "bread and butter" equation.

Below are a few photographs of the delicious food that I sampled during my travels. The first is a typical breakfast of smoked salmon, cream cheese, thick-sliced grainy bread, and greens.

This next meal requires a preface. I generally dislike soup. I know, who do I think I am to not like soup? Everyone likes soup. The truth of the matter is that unless it's a bowl filled with hearty ingredients with a few splashes of liquid, I'm setting down my spoon. But don't write me off just yet- this bowlful may have changed my mind. Unbearably tender and flavorful pieces of lamb in a rich, savory broth with potatoes, carrots, celery, and onions. After an eight hour tour of the glaciers, geysers, and nearly falling head first into a waterfall, this warm and hearty stew tasted divine. And accompanied by a crusty, toasted sourdough roll with butter, I was convinced that  a meal could be just as remarkable as a landscape.

I'd read that Iceland supposedly has some of the best hot dogs in the world. Made from a mixture of lamb, pork and beef, they are extremely popular. Just minutes after setting foot in the country, I was en route to Baejarins Beztu, quite possibly the most famous hot dog stand in Iceland. The tiny, humble shack had a line that stretched down the block and a framed photo of Bill Clinton munching on one of the foot long delicacies. That's all I needed to see to know I'd come to the right place. I ordered a dog with "the works:" remoulade (a mayonnaise based sauce), ketchup, sweet honey mustard, chopped fresh onions, and fried onions. The verdict? Hands down the best I've tasted.

On my last night in Iceland, I dined on a favorite meal of mine: Fish and Chips. Now, I'm from Massachusetts so I've eaten my fair share of what I consider to be delicious, fresh seafood. But as I was licking my plate clean, to the disgust of fellow diners, I came to a realization. I might as well have been eating canned tuna up until this meal. No, I shouldn't go that far, canned tuna can be delicious. I simply mean that although I consider the northeastern United States to be home to some wonderful sea fare, this was a step above. Beer-battered and fried haddock, served with crisp, herbed roasted potatoes. And for my dipping pleasure, a tangy twist on tartar sauce involving skyr rather than traditional mayonnaise.

And lastly, a photo of just about the only thing I did not stick my fork into in Iceland.

I tried.

-Andrea Mitchell, Foodista staff and blogger at



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Alina's picture

Thank you for this insight into Icelandic foods! I've been to Rejkyavik once and I absolutely fell in love with this chilly and beautiful city! I even had some fermented shark, hehe :) I also remember their lattes and hot chocolate - always with an extremely thick cap of whipped cream, sprinkled with sweetened cocoa and cinnamon - heavenly!

Alex @ IEatAsphalt's picture

This is a great post! I love hearing about ethnic foods. I went to China in October and ate so many crazy foods that I never would have normally tried. The best thing about traveling is always trying the regional foods. I don't think I'd want to try puffin any time... they are just too darn cute!

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erin's picture

Great post! We're traveling to Iceland in September and I have to know where you ate those fish and chips- looks amazing! Thanks!

Conor @ HoldtheBeef's picture

That is totally my type of breakfast. After having spent the last four weeks travelling, and often eating breakfast out, smoked salmon became a staple breakfast ingredient. I just can't resist it when on a menu.

Also, hooray for crispy fish and spuds :)

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Sigthor Hrafnsson's picture

Very favorable article on Icelandic food and culture. It's all true but please don't tell to many people, we are trying to keep this place a secret :)

P.s. I see you almost had the traditional Icelandic meatsoup. Ask for Islensk kjotsupa the next time you are over.