When one thinks of Iceland, many things could enter a person’s mind: open spaces, hot springs, fresh air, and an abundance of nature. But one aspect of the country that I personally feel isn’t talked about enough is the food. Usually when Icelandic food is mentioned, one would think of cooked up exotic sea animals such as whale, puffin, and shark; dishes that perhaps Inuit people would also eat. But there is more to Icelandic cuisine than strange seafood that you normally wouldn’t eat back home, so much more.
Although I would have loved to have gone to a restaurant and eaten exotic seafood, when I went to Iceland I was a student travelling during my summer semester break so I was on a budget. Restaurant meals were too far out of my price range to even consider. When it came to food I was limited to the grocery store or take-away places. Luckily I did get to stay with an Icelandic family for a few days during my week-long stopover so I got to sample some of their cooking, and yes they did serve up some fine and tasty Icelandic food.
I was only in Iceland for a week, but I still sometimes think back to some of the food I ate there and my heart fills with a longing to go back. If you’re a foodie like I am, next time you make a trip from North America to Europe or vice versa, take the time to stop in Iceland and give the local cuisine a try, you won’t regret it. Icelandair offers cheap flights between North America and Europe and free stopovers in Iceland for up to seven days at no additional cost to your airfare. Icelandair unfortunately no longer offers complimentary meals on their flights so you either have to buy food on the plane or wait until you land. If you are stubborn like me and choose to wait until you’re on the ground to eat, you will have a beautiful country with delicious eats waiting for you to discover and with that growling tummy you will be hitting up the closest restaurant sampling Icelandic cuisine sooner than later.
I did my Icelandic stopover while flying over from Canada to Germany and it was a great way to experience a new country and culture, whilst on my way to mainland Europe. If you’re on your way to Europe to hit up a major foodie destination, such as France or Italy This northerly island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, a bridge between Europe and North America, has much to offer and is a perfect place to feast your senses and sharpen your palate. Here is my personal list of Icelandic food that I enjoyed during my trip:
Licorice: Now some of you might be thinking, “Ew, licorice!” For some, especially North Americans, licorice is an acquired taste but I’ve always loved it even as a kid. If you are a licorice-aholic like me, you have to go to Iceland! Icelandic people are proud of their licorice and if you go there you will see for yourself why they have a right to be proud. There is vast amount of licorice in the candy aisle of an Icelandic grocery store. Licorice and chocolate together especially are a loved combination for Icelanders. Combining these two ingredients might seem crazy to some, but it’s not as bad as it sounds and it’s quite tasty.
Before I came to Iceland I had never thought of mixing licorice with chocolate but after this trip I was hooked. My personal favourite is Freyju Djúpur. With a licorice center and milk chocolate coating surrounded in a white candy shell, you can’t go wrong. The candy coating adds a pleasant crunchy outer texture and gives you a satisfying first bite. An Icelandic friend first introduced me to them in Canada and I couldn’t stop thinking about them. When I went to visit her in Iceland, I was determined to buy a bag for myself. I brought a bag of it with me to Germany and by the end of my five week trip in mainland Europe, I found myself buying these candies again at the Duty Free Shop in Keflavík International Airport. I also bought a bag of Þrista kúlur to try. A candy similar to Djúpur, it has licorice center covered in chocolate, but there is also a caramel filling as well and these delightful sweets have a yellow candy coating instead of white. They taste amazing on their own or dipped in peanut butter, which I did on occasion. I happily munched on these chocolate covered licorice wonders back home and it was sad to see the last of them go, but I know that on my next trip to Iceland there will still be plenty of licorice and chocolatey goodness to be had.
Yogurt: Icelandic yogurt is unbelievably creamy. I find our yogurt in North America can be a bit watery at times and what you get in Iceland puts our yogurt to shame. My favourite yogurt in Iceland is produced by the company Skyr. It’s so smooth and creamy and full of flavour. This brand follows traditional yogurt making methods using low fat milk that have been a part of Iceland’s history for over a thousand years. You can find this yogurt in any Icelandic grocery store and it is a great snack and a must try for yogurt lovers.
When I was doing a road trip through south Iceland, I picked up a hitchhiking couple from Switzerland and we spent the next couple of days hiking together. After hiking through Skaftafell National Park we all coincidentally were eating Skyr yogurt at the end of this hike, which led to a conversation of how good this yogurt was. This Swiss couple, like me, were smitten with this yogurt. Coming from people who live in a country like Switzerland, where their dairy products are world famous and renowned, it further proved to me that this yogurt was indeed exceptional. I also found this article by the Huffington Post which further proves that it’s not just me, this Icelandic yogurt is delicious and not to be missed.
Fish: Through my travels I’ve noticed that the closer you are to the sea or the ocean, the fresher the seafood is. Iceland is certainly no exception to this rule. I only had fish once during my week in Iceland, but it was fresh and tasty and something that I will eat more of the next time I make it out to this island country. Growing up over 1000km inland from Canada’s Pacific Coast, the seafood we have is usually frozen, smelly, and unappetizing, long story short I don’t like eating seafood at home, except for sushi, and I usually avoid it like the plague.
However, since Iceland is renowned for its seafood, I knew that it would be worth my while not to turn my nose up to the idea of eating Icelandic salmon cooked by my Icelandic friend on my last night of an amazing week spent in Iceland. This beautiful home cooked salmon served on a bed of rice with a creamy sauce was a simple but memorable experience that to this day, which I still cherish. Normally back home when I eat cooked salmon I take a bite and gag. But this salmon was exceptional and I thoroughly enjoyed it. When you go to Iceland it is in your best interest to try some of the local fish at least once during your stay, regardless of whether you like fish or not. Iceland has some of the freshest water and air in the world. This peaceful Atlantic island doesn’t face pollution problems that many other countries in the world currently deal with. With such optimal conditions you don’t experience the nasty smelling fish that you might be used to. Icelandic fish is top quality and a delicacy worth sampling.
Lamb Boats: Lamb boats are delicious sub sandwiches filled with thinly sliced fried lamb meat usually accompanied with a mayonnaise based sauce and an assortment of veggies, red cabbage and friend onions are quite common. Most people get these lamb boats at the Hlölli restaurant in Reykyavik. I first tried the lamb boat while on my road trip on the south part of the island in Selfoss.
I had this American guy in my car, he was an annoying and irritable hippy guy that I met in my hostel in Reykjavik. He insisted on joining me on my road trip and offered to pay for half of the car rental and he had a tent and extra sleeping bag to boot, sweet. Well later once I got to know him better and discovered the annoying side of his personality it wasn’t so sweet. But he had one redeeming quality, he introduced me to the lamb boat. While we were driving he insisted on pulling over to buy a lamb boat at this food truck and splitting it. He paid for the lamb boat, which was nice, free food woot! But he never gave me any money for the car rental. Even though I am pissed about having to endure his annoying personality for a whole day, I think he was meant to come into my life to show me these tasty sandwiches.
I would love to post a link of this little take-away place just on the side of the highway we visited, but I can’t find this place on google. At any rate it was so delicious and I was pleasantly surprised by how good this sandwich was. Is it as good as what you get in Reykjavik? I have no idea, nevertheless if you are in Iceland and you have a hankering for a decent sandwich, especially on the highway in south Iceland, give the lamb boat a try. I know I will be eating more of these delicious sub sandwiches when I’m back in Iceland.
Hot Dogs: So this one night I was partying with these German guys that I met at my hostel, who were super nice and insisted on paying for all of my drinks (thanks guys!). We were at this awesome hip hop bar called Prikið (so fun!). After a night of drinking the guys insisted on getting hot dogs from the late night super market, 10-11 on Austurstræti. At first I was grossed out by the idea of eating a hot dog. In North America our hotdogs are so nasty and made from the weirdest animal bi-products. Before Iceland I usually associated hot dogs as an unhealthy and trashy substitute for proper sausage meat. Walking through the airport in Keflavík I saw signs advertising Iceland’s famous hot dogs, which made me gasp in horror (has American culture had that much of an effect on Iceland?). But once I had a hot dog in Iceland I realized that they were nothing like what you get in North America.
Icelandic hotdogs are made mostly from lamb rather than beef. At 10-11 they also served bacon wrapped hotdogs, which were so delicious! The toppings are completely different. Instead of Heinz ketchup and French’s mustard, I was presented with an array of hot dog toppings that I had never seen before. There was a European style potato salad, crispy onions, Dijon-style mustard, and this white hotdog sauce, I’m not sure what was in it but it was good. They also had raw onions but I’m not a fan so I passed on those, but it’s a nice option for those of you who like that sort of thing. All the hot dog toppings were presented in a serve yourself condiment table so you put on whatever you wanted, it was awesome! As a bonus, these hot dogs are cheap and are usually under 400 ISK. These hotdogs were the best I’ve ever had in my life and are a staple food in Iceland that is not to be missed! When I had a stopover for a couple of hours in Iceland after flying back to Canada from Germany, I made sure to pick up a hotdog and a container of Skyr yogurt from the cafeteria in the airport because I had missed these foods so much! *sigh*.
Cinnamon Buns: When I stayed with my Icelandic friend and her family in their country home on the Hvalfjörður (the Whale Fjord), they decided to make me an Icelandic treat, which was cinnamon buns. They were smaller than typical cinnamon buns in North America. They were about as big as the bottom of a cup, but they were delicious and highly addictive, without being overly sweet. Unlike what you commonly get in North America, they were not overly loaded with sugar, icing, or cinnamon. The sweetness and cinnamon were subtle, but sufficient to satisfy a sweet tooth. I was lucky enough to try the real deal made from loving hands at home. If you aren’t lucky enough to try them homemade, you can easily pick up Icelandic cinnamon buns at any grocery store. I never tried the store bought ones so I don’t know the difference (probably a lack of preservatives?). Since I got to try them homemade I didn’t see the point of buying them at the store. But I’m sure either way they will be good. However way you get these cinnamon buns, they will without a doubt be a delightful treat for your sweet tooth cravings in Iceland.
Carbonated Orange Juice: My last night in Iceland my Icelandic friend and her boyfriend told me that I had to give Egils Appelsín a try. So on my flight back to Canada I gave it a try when the stewardess offered me a drink. Appelsin literally means orange in Icelandic. The drink itself is kind of like Apfelschorle but with oranges instead of apples. It’s a refreshing citrus drink that has delightful carbonated bubbles that tingle in your throat and give one the sensation of drinking pop. But at the same time it tasted more like actual oranges rather than Orange Crush soda, which has a nasty artificial orange taste that is nothing like the fruit. I’m more of an apple juice person but this fizzy orange juice wasn’t too bad and it will certainly be a delicious treat for those of you who are more orange than apple.
Water: Now I know what you’re thinking, water isn’t a food. But trust me when in Iceland, the water will be the best part of your culinary journey. Whilst chowing down on scrumptious food that leaves you salivating and wanting more, it is essential to take a sip of water here and there and it will be just as good as the food itself, if not better. In Canada we have decent water for the most part, but Icelandic water blew me away. It is so fresh, pure, and tasty. The water tastes so good on its own, you won’t need to put in crystals or fruit flavoured drops in it to make it drinkable. The abundance of high quality fresh water is so well known in Iceland that it’s not uncommon to see posters like this one, in Reykjavik, arguing for the banning of bottled water in Iceland.
Iceland has some of the freshest and purest water in the world due to its low population density, close access to glaciers, and its minimal to nonexistent level of pollution. Bottled water isn’t necessary in Iceland because there is so much natural fresh water that can be found all over the island in great abundance and there is more than enough to go around the island. When I was hiking with my Icelandic friend on a mountain in the Hvalfjörður we were tired and exhausted once we got to the top. My friend in her exhaustion drank directly from a stream of water that was on top of this mountain.
I gave it a go but was a bit hesitant. In my part of Canada we would never think to drink untreated water from the ground, it’s usually a guaranteed way to make yourself sick. But nothing happened to my body, I was completely fine afterwards. The water was also pure and clear and did not contain any funky particles that one can usually find in untreated water sources. It was an amazing experience and it made me realize how special Iceland is. There are many places around the world where fresh clean water is difficult or nearly impossible to come by. Iceland does not have these issues and hopefully it stays that way for a long time. If you appreciate a glass of fresh and pure water, you must have the tap water in Iceland, it is a delight for your senses and is probably the best water you will ever have.
What’s worth missing out on?:
Beef: I bought minced beef from the grocery store to add to my pasta sauce. It was alright but nothing to write home about. Coming from Alberta, a Canadian province that is famous all over the world for its exceptional beef, it’s hard for me to eat beef in other countries, especially when they do not have a reputation for good beef. Iceland is one of those countries and if you go there, you’re better off avoiding the beef. I met an Australian girl in my hostel who also thought that the beef wasn’t too good in Iceland, so I know it’s not just me. When traveling it’s best to eat meat that a country is best at producing; I learned that lesson in Iceland. Iceland isn’t known for its cows, it’s the land of sea creatures and sheep, so it’s best to just stick to lamb and seafood.
Now get on your Icelandair flight and eat your heart out in Iceland!