We spent two weeks in Iceland recently, our first international trip in 14 months. After no travel for more than a year, we were so excited to get back out on the international travel scene and Iceland was a perfect place to start. I’ve already written two blogs about our visit, Iceland by the Ring Road and Reykjavik on Foot. But today I want to tell you about the Icelandic Cuisine Surprising & Delicious.
Since we were on a pretty strict budget in a pretty expensive country, we actually didn’t eat out too many times. In our campervan we cooked seven of the nine nights. While in Reykjavik we had two excellent meals out and did a really fun and interesting food tour with Your Friends in Reykjavik.
These meals all provided us some surprising and delicious discoveries of the Icelandic cuisine both old and new.
HOW TO LEARN ABOUT ICELANDIC CUISINE
If you follow our blog regularly you know that I love how cuisine and culture go hand in hand in countries we visit. When I can, I take a cooking class where we travel, and we also often do food tours. In both classes and tours, you can learn from locals about what makes certain foods important to their culture, how certain foods became part of the local cuisine, and how ‘nouveau’ cuisine incorporates both the old and the new. I love learning all of this stuff. Fascinating.
Like in all countries, certain foods grew from humble beginnings. In Iceland, fish of course played an important role, but due to the difficult growing seasons and soil, few vegetables were included. Sheep have always been a big part of the diet, and Icelanders learned to use every part of the animal. Later, potatoes and hardy colder weather plants like fennel became important.
Although some of the age-old items may sound unappetizing to us today, try to think about the Icelandic people of long ago and their struggle to make it through the winter. It is this struggle that developed some of the foods that are still considered comfort foods today.
Traditional Foods of Old
Dried Cod – When barley was scarce but cod was abundant, Icelanders saved the barley for beer and used dried cod spread with butter like bread.
Svidastata – what you might know as head cheese, a concoction of all the left over parts of the sheep (or other livestock) set in aspic. Today still served with crackers or bread.
Fiskibollur – fish balls made from cod. There are so many cod dishes and this old dish was one the fishwife could make with all the left over bits.
Pickled Herring – as in many Scandinavian and Eastern European countries, pickled herring is and was a staple in Iceland. Today you can buy it in numerous flavors at the grocery store and it is often served for breakfast, but at other times of the day as well.
Reindeer – not native to Iceland, they were brought from Norway and attempted to develop commercially long ago. But that endeavor failed. Yet reindeer can be found in use occasionally on menus. We had it twice.
Fermented Shark – my least favorite thing from the Icelandic cuisine. It is definitely an old-school survival dish, fermented to last long and through the winter – it tastes like ammonia.
Plokkfiskur Cod and Potato Mash – I enjoyed this dish very much. It’s basically mashed potatoes with butter and mixed with cooked cod. Definitely a comfort food in Iceland.
Kartufulsalat (Potato Salad) – since potatoes are easy to store through the winter they became a staple in Iceland. Potatoes are not native but are easy to grow and represent another comfort food. The Iceland Potato Salad is very unique, using apples! Here is our Tasty Tuesday all about Icelandic Potato Salad.
Salt – surrounded by water Iceland has always had an abundant source of salt, and it was used for preservation. Today you can find dozens of flavored salts.
Smoked or Cured Salmon – another way to preserve fish of course is by smoking and smoked salmon continues to be a popular dish in Iceland today.
Fennel and Anise – like potatoes, fennel and anise grow well in a cool climate. Anise is the reason Icelanders love licorice treats, and you will find licorice used in many things. We also had fennel flavored butter which was delicious.
New Foods – The Nouveau Cuisine
Don’t assume that Icelandic food is bland or boring. In fact, Iceland like many places, is undergoing a food revolution. Innovative chefs are introducing nouveau Icelandic cuisine and it is surprising & delicious. Taking parts of the old, and adding new flavors and ingredients.
On both our food tour and at the handful of restaurants we ate at (most in Reykjavik) we were delighted to find delicious dishes made from local and fresh produce, meat and seafood. When in Reykjavik don’t miss these favorites:
One of the best meals we had during our two weeks in Iceland was at Rok. This beautiful restaurant is housed in a small historic building right near the Hallgrimskirkja church. Make a reservation if you can, it is very popular. We enjoyed a variety of small shared plates, with our favorites being the lobster bisque, the arctic char and the smoked salmon bruschetta. Absolutely delicious all. A fabulous mix of traditional and new ingredients prepared in innovative and delicious ways.
On our very first night we got super lucky to stumble (literally we were so jet lagged) into Skall. Skall is located in the Hlemmur Food Market, a foodie heaven inside a former bus depot! We read about Hlemmur in our Rick Steves guide so we headed there, not knowing what we would find. We pulled up a chair at the bar and the rest is culinary history. We enjoyed spectacular baked cod with fennel mash, deep fried cauliflower, lumpfish roe and the best tomatoes I ever had.
As part of our food tour with Your Friends in Reykjavik we had two courses at the Islenski Barinn, a popular restaurant with locals in a historic building in the center of town. Here we enjoyed smoked reindeer with cheese and Iceland’s favorite comfort food of Lamb Stew. Thinner than what we usually call stew in the USA, but very flavorful broth with lamb and vegetables.
Also on our food tour we enjoyed Icelandic Fish Stew at Kopar, a popular seafood restaurant portside. The fish stew is made from cod but traditionally all the left over fish bits, fabulous broth and includes potatoes and celery. At Kopar we also had the most amazing fennel butter with warm bread. Divine.
On the Ring Road tour don’t miss;
Sker in Snaefellsbaer
In the far north on the Ring Road we stopped for lunch one day at Sker in the small town of Snaefellsbaer. We both ordered the Fish and Chips and it was one of the best I have ever had. Cod was incredible. Cod is everywhere here, but also so versatile.
North West Hotel and Restaurant in Hvammstangi
After a really long driving day we stopped at this road side hole in the wall that was recommended in our Rick Steves book and were astounded at the quality of the Lamb Chops. Perfectly prepared and served with red cabbage coleslaw and potato salad. We went away very happy.
Kaffi Lara El Grillo Bar
We took a wee bit of a side tour from the Ring Road in the East Fjords to the tiny village of Seydisfjordur. It was fun to see how the locals live in a small village. We stepped into this restaurant with a bizarre name and enjoyed a fabulous lunch of foil baked cod and possibly the best baked potato I have ever eaten. We complimented the waitress on the baked potato she told us there was a special ingredient…love.
On the Snaefellnes Peninsula be sure and visit;
We did a short 4 mile roundtrip hike from Hellnar to Arnarstapi – along the fascinatingly beautiful oceanside basalt cliffs. If you start in Arnarstapi you can take a break at the tiny historic seaside cottage turned small cafe called Fjoruhusid at the halfway point in Hellnar. Enjoy a pastry with coffee of tea, or order the authentic and delicious Iceland Fish Soup (which is what we did). With fantastic bread too. We splurged on the “cheesecake” made from skyr, a popular yogurt/sour cream-like favorite of the Iceland people.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
There were many more restaurants we would have liked to try during our time in Iceland. Well I guess we will need to go back! We equally enjoyed the traditional and the nouveau. As gifts we brought home lots of licorice, salt, and pickled herring. All delicious and well received. I am trying my hand in my kitchen with many new things including Fish Balls, Lamb Stew and Lobster Bisque. Keep an eye on our Tasty Tuesday YouTube channel for those upcoming Icelandic specialties.
Icelandic Cuisine Surprising & Delicious. Just one of many reasons to book a trip to beautiful Iceland. Such a breath of fresh air.
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