We think about food all the time. It’s a part of our daily routine and of course, it’s a staple for human survival. What we eat is not something random. It forms a part of a larger culture and also creates new traditions in most societies. Typical food becomes traditional because it is part of the history and collective consciousness of a whole nation. Do you want to know Icelandic culture better? The best way to discover it is learning about traditional Icelandic food.
As a famous Spanish writer once said: “Cooking is the landscape in a saucepan” and he could not be more right. When we taste different flavors, products and way of cooking, we get to travel through the roots and history of a whole country. This can easily be seen in the Icelandic cuisine, where the Norse, the Danish and the products of a tough environment combined perfectly to create what we call today the traditional Icelandic food.
The history of this Nordic nation is about struggling to survive. A remote island in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean, close to the Arctic, is not exactly the most fertile land one can find. But let’s not forget the Vikings were tougher than their unfavorable circumstances. Even though the raw material was scarce, they did find a way to turn it into healthy, nourishing and in some cases, tasty food.
The key to Icelandic cuisine is, of course, fish. The fishing culture was already a huge part of Viking life and the Icelanders simply inherited it. It’s not hard to imagine why, as the main source of food for this tiny island are the cold waters of the North Atlantic Ocean. This area is rich and diverse in natural resources. The main varieties of fish are cod, haddock, wolfish. Sharks and whales are also common visitors of these immense waters and Icelanders knew exactly how to take advantage of that.
Fermented Shark and Fish dishes in Icelandic Cuisine:
Bread may seem easy and basic for many people but it was expensive and hard to get as grain was difficult to produce on Icelandic soil. That is when dry fish became the delicious garnish of any meal in Iceland. Stockfish or Harðfiskur is usually hanged and air dried. Other specialties are:
Hákarl: Most commonly known as fermented shark, it is an unforgettable fish and the most traditional (and infamous!) food from Iceland. It always makes it to the top of any “what to eat in Iceland” list. Perhaps it may not look like the most delicious dish on earth but it is worth the try. Some say it smells like ammonia but to many Icelanders, it smells just fine. I guess we got used to it after centuries of limited food options!
The reason why Hákarl is fermented as it is the only way to get rid of all the toxins. You cannot eat raw Greenland shark’s flesh as it is toxic to humans.
Plokkfiskur: A food classic! It is a fish stew which combines fish, potatoes, some béchamel sauce and onions. Sounds a bit more comforting than Hákarl, doesn’t it?
Humarsúpa: Seafood is also the main ingredient in Icelandic cuisine. In this case, lobster is prepared in a creamy soup with delicious spices. A great option to have on a cold winter day!
If you are not a fish or seafood lover, fear not. The settlers did manage to bring some livestock to Iceland. Sheep and cattle are the main groups but poultry can also be found on some farms. From sheep and cattle, we get some great traditional Icelandic food and delicious dairy products and meat!
Meat and Dairy products in Icelandic Cuisine:
Slátur: It’s a blood pudding, similar to those found in the UK or in Spain but with different spices. If you like cold meat, then you should give it a go.
Ofnbakað lambalæri: or baked lamb. The taste of the Icelandic lamb is rich and intense. The reason behind this is that our sheep graze freely, no stress, no rush. The grass is fresh and nourishing and as a result, the meat we get is tender and full of flavor.
Svið: this is a famous traditional dish and people go nuts when they see it. Picture this: a whole sheep head boiled, eyes included, on your plate. I get it, it’s not the world’s most visually appealing dish, but it’s so yummy! It’s also not eaten every day, as many foreigners think. It is quite the opposite, as Svið is usually served at Þorrablót, a midwinter festival.
Skyr: the crown jewel of Iceland’s food. It’s a thick but still creamy dairy product. Somewhat similar to yogurt but not yet the same. You can have with fruits, berry jam, or anything you please. It is a low-sugar, no-fat, high-protein product. You’re gonna love it!
Kjötsúpa: This dish has been around Iceland’s households for centuries! It is tasty, healthy and warm. And that is always a great thing to have on our long, winter days! Lamb soup is very popular and it is made of lamb shoulder, carrots, potatoes and turnip.
Traditional Icelandic Food: A Basic Introduction
Pastries and Bakery products in Iceland cuisine:
Desserts make life sweeter! And in Iceland, we’ve got plenty of options to go with coffee.
Kleinur: the name translates to “small,” but they are a big thing in Iceland! Kleinur is one of the most traditional baked goods in the country. It is twisted, fried dough spiced with cinnamon and cardamom.
Mondlukaka: a traditional almond cake, you can order “Kaffi og kaka” or coffee with cake and make your day much brighter.
Flatkaka: it is a flatbread we usually eat with roasted lamb and butter. Delicious!
Now you have a basic knowledge of the traditional Icelandic food. It’s your turn to head to the best restaurants in Iceland and get a taste of our country! Verði þér að góðu! Enjoy your meal!