Food in Iceland
Iceland has so many wonderful things to offer, from an amazing public education system to lush natural beauty. It also has quite a few unique delicacies that you absolutely must try if you visit. Being the two staple products, the seafood is naturally excellent and you can find a number of tasty lamb dishes all around the country. But that’s not all there is… Let’s look at some of our family favorites!
I would be remiss to begin with anything but the famous pylsa, or Icelandic hot dog. These gems are not your typical ballpark weiner, but are in fact a perfect blend of beef, lamb, and pork with a semi-crunchy casing. They’re usually boiled, but you can find them grilled as well.
Hot dog stands can be found all over, even in gas stations, and they’re all quite good. One famous hot dog stand is downtown in Reykjavík, near Harpa concert hall. It can boast US presidents as customers! Seriously, these are good dogs.
Don’t just get them with the typical American toppings, though. Here you want to try them með öllu, or “with everything”. Everything in this case consists of crunchy onions and raw onions, a special pylsa mustard, remoulade, and yes, ketchup. They are just divine.
Icelanders eat a lot of fish and potatoes, not necessarily together. But this dish, plokkfiskur, is a blend of both. It’s a traditional family meal that uses up leftovers that have been cooked earlier in the week. Of course, you can just make it for its own sake if you’re anything like me and absolutely in love with the hearty warmth it fills you with.
The picture above is the plokkfiskur available at Café Loki. This restaurant is famous for serving traditional Icelandic fare. If you stop by I recommend the pickled herring and the rye bread ice cream. Delicious!
But lets go back to the plokkfiskur for a minute. The meal is pretty simple: about half is white fish, often haddock, and the other half is boiled potatoes. These are mashed and cooked together with a creamy sauce made of milk & butter, and then everything is seasoned with a liberal amount (read ALL) of white pepper. Some recipes will add in cheese or sprinkle it on top and bake the dish to give it that lovely crust.
Like Italian families and their sauce recipes, plokkfiskur has a lot of variety based on how each person’s grandmother made it. That made looking up recipes a little bit tricky at first. Deciding where to start took some navigating, but I decided to keep it simple.
I’ve made my own plokkfiskur a handful of times now and have begun tweaking it to my own family’s preferences. They like a bit more potato than fish and our seasoning mix has evolved. We have also decided that our homemade dish can only be served with a specific brand of rye bread. Anything less is just not worth it.
“Rye Bread?” you may be asking yourself. Well, whatever you’re imagining, it’s not that. The rye bread here has a very interesting history going back to the time of Danish rule when trade to Iceland was minimal. Getting good grain here was very difficult. Instead, Denmark sent its surplus of rye and Icelanders just had to make the best of it. What they created was as unique as the landscape.
Icelandic rye bread is baked in the earth near hot springs where it bakes for 24 hours. The result is dense and moist and nearly a cake. When you spread the local butter on it and take a bite, be careful. You can finish that whole loaf before you know it.
Now I could link my favorite rye bread brand here and tell you, but I already have a hard enough time getting it at the grocery store. It sells out so fast!
If you want to learn more about cool Icelandic dishes that came about because of the poverty and isolation of the country, read about laufabrauð.
The pancakes in Scandinavia are basically crepes. They’re these thin bits of deliciousness that dissolves on your tongue. Many of the ice cream shops also sell sweet and savory crepes. Now I’m craving one with Nutella. See what you’ve done?
Also on the topic of treats, I can’t forget to mention skyr. This has finally made its way to the US thanks to Siggi’s brand. You can probably find it in your yogurt isle.
Skyr is less sweet than yogurt, even less-so than greek yogurt. It’s also extremely thick and hearty. It’s packed full of protein and will kill those hunger pangs quickly. One can imagine it was useful here in the old days.
Also, fun-fact, skyr is technically a cheese!
There’s so many amazing foods here that we’re still exploring. I’ve yet to try eating the boiled lamb head, and I haven’t found a good place to try Slátur, blood pudding. The rotted shark is pretty gross, but the dried fish is quite tasty with butter.
We are making our way through the things we see in the grocery store and making note of the blind successes. The picture above is one of those. It’s a rather inexpensive frozen fish with some sort of reddish breading. The kid likes it, and with a bit of pítusósa on top, we do too. (If any Icelanders are reading this and can tell me exactly what it’s called I’d appreciate it.)
In many ways the fare here reminds me most of Tuscany. The focus on making simple things excellent is clear. Modern day Iceland does have some very fancy places to try out high-end cuisine, but I wouldn’t dismiss the simple ones.