Considering how isolated Iceland has been for most of its history, it´s no wonder the island´s tiny population (320,000!) has developed a unique cuisine based on whatever raw materials were available. Many traditional ingredients and dishes remain popular to this day and you would be crazy not to try these delicious delicacies when you go.
Skyr (pronounced skeer) is practically the national food and until recently was only available in Iceland. This high protein, low fat creation is technically a cheese, but looks and tastes like yoghurt and is delicious. It comes in a range of flavours and also in a drink form. My favourite flavour was vanilla but they are all tasty, you can´t go wrong. Skyr is available everywhere, even at the airport, which is handy for smuggling a few tubs home.
While staying on an Icelandic farm, the skyr came out for every meal. My adopted family often added cream or milk. Yes, it was a dairy overload but it somehow it worked!
Icelandic horses are revered for their beauty and strength (not to mention their unique ´five-gaits´) and have always been an essential prop of the economy. Eating horse meat has kept Icelanders from starvation over the years and it´s prized for its strong flavour. Throw a horse steak on the barbie if you get the chance!
Whale Before you ask, yes I felt guilty eating whale. Particularly as it was only a few days after I went on a whale watching tour. I don’t necessarily condone the whaling industry but as a vital food source for Icelanders for many years, I wanted to experience this meat just once. Plus the whale I ate (minke), is not an endangered species. I was surprised to find that it looks just like beef and has a similar texture and flavour. It was absolutely delicious. I´d recommend trying it at Islenski Barinn where they serve grilled minke whale with deep fried shrimps and blueberry glaze.
Puffins are known as the clowns of the sea for their multi-coloured beaks and waddly walk. They were another essential food source for Icelanders through tough times and are now regarded as a delicacy. Smoked puffin has a part gamey, part fishy taste and also looks like beef. It´s often served smoked with a blueberry sauce, the sweetness working as a nice contrast to the strong puffin flavour.
Icelandic hot dogs (pylsur) are another revered tradition, but given that many countries claim to make a top hotdog, what´s so special about those in Iceland? A couple of things. Firstly they use lamb along with pork which adds a richer flavour. Then there are the condiments: sweet brown mustard, ketchup, raw onions, crunchy deep-fried onions and a parsley remoulade. They don’t look pretty, but oh my the taste.
It´s not unusual to see people (okay me) buying two or three at once, especially from the cult Baejarin Bestu stand (voted Europe´s best hotdog stand by The Guardian). At 380 krónas (around €2.50) each its´s also the closest thing to a bargain you´ll find in Iceland.
Caramelised potatoes Yes you read right. That holy grail of potatoes, sugar and butter. I was introduced to this dish when staying on a remote farm in the north with my Icelandic friends and their parents. Upon introduction (I don’t speak Icelandic and they don’t speak English so that didn’t take long), I settled myself by the kitchen and watched in awe as my friend´s mum made a rich caramel. Convinced it was for dessert, perhaps with apples, I was stunned when she added a pot of freshly boiled potatoes to the sticky substance.
Served with roast lamb, the results were delicious and I justified double servings on the grounds that I was eating a main and dessert. I didn’t see it on any restaurant menus so my advice would be to make friends with some locals and score an invite to dinner!
Kleina is a traditional diamond-shaped pastry you´ll spot all over the place but do try and track down a fresh version if you can. Sweet dough is cut into small trapezoids with a special cutting wheel (kleinujárn), formed into a knot and deep fried. These little beauties are mentioned in one of the first cookbooks printed in Icelandic, dating from 1800. Thanks again to my adopted Icelandic family who introduced me to the homemade version.
Ice Well if you´re going all the way to Iceland then the least you can do is try the ice right? I had the opportunity to try it in its purest form at the Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon in southeast Iceland.
Icebergs break away from the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier and bob peacefully in the lagoon before eventually sailing out to sea.
I took a boat trip into the lagoon and our driver broke off a hunk of ice for us to try. A few shots of vodka and fresh lime would not have gone astray!
Have you tried something else exceptionally tasty in Iceland? Let me Know!
*One item decidedly NOT on this list is shark, or hákarl in Icelandic. Rotten shark is fermented and dried for six months and the result is little white cubes which smell and taste like a putrid ammonia soaked old fish. I knew what I was in for before I tried it but ignored the warnings. Try this at your own risk and if you already have – did you find it as repulsive as I did?