We spent 15 days exploring the wild terrain in Iceland — cascading mountains draped with snow, the licorice colored waters of the Atlantic Ocean frozen below us, and endless fjords. We spent nights bundled up together under woolen blankets or tucked away in local pubs, escaping the snow. During our travels, these were the dishes that we enjoyed most.
Scandinavian cuisine is based on utilizing what the land has to offer. For centuries, the cuisine has stayed consistent and continues to utilize the natural ingredients found throughout Iceland’s environment. Sheep, cod, lamb, skyr, potatoes, seafood, and fish are all very common items to see on menus in Icelandic restaurants. We had the opportunity to enjoy a wonderful selection of ingredients during our stay. Here’s some of our favorites.
The Pylsur will be your saving grace if you’re on the hunt for drunk food at 2 am on your way back from a local pub or are starving after a long day of driving. Iceland is known for their hot dogs . These hot dogs were one of our absolute favorite things while visiting — and the best part is that they serve them everywhere. If you’re searching for them, try running into a local gas station or find a kiosk selling them. They make their Pylsur using primarily lamb as well as some pork and beef. They’re snappy. They’re warm. And sometimes they’re even wrapped with bacon. There’s really nothing to be upset about when ordering one of these. They usually serve ketchup with the dogs as well as a sweet brown mustard called Pylsusinnep. During our travels in, we ate hot dogs more than anything else. They’re affordable, easy to take in the car, and fill you up when you need something delicious and easy before getting to your next stop three hours away. We spent many nights making our way down frozen streets in Reykjavik to indulge in one of these late night snacks.
Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur is the most popular Pylsur kiosk in Iceland. It’s so good you’re going to want to order two (trust us!). It has been in business for over sixty years and constantly has a line of visitors waiting patiently for their pylsurs. You can find it in downtown Reykjavik and they really do have the “best hot dogs in town”. Make sure to order it eina með öllu, meaning “with everything”. It’s a must try. You’ll get a hot dog made with lamb, beef, and pork with crunchy deep fried onions, raw onions, sweet brown mustard called pylsusinnep, and creamy remoulade. For you purists, you can get the dog by itself but we highly recommend trying it their way! The best part about this hot spot is that tourists and locals alike both frequent this kiosk. We’d definitely recommend making the trip to try one (or two). When you finally arrive, make sure to know what you want and bring small bills to pay.
Icelandic rye bread is a delicious staple in Icelandic cuisine and it is served frequently with meals. Rúgbrauð is a delicate brown bread that brings sweet flavor and can be served with pretty much anything. Traditionally, this bread was baked in a pot or steamed in wooden casks that were buried near hot springs. If you ask a local, they will tell you that the only way to make rúgbrauð right is by burying it near a bubbling hot spring where it is cooked by the Earth’s heat over the course of a day or so. You’ll commonly see rúgbrauð served in restaurants as table bread with creamy butter or as a breakfast item topped with smoked salmon and cheese or cream cheese. This delicious bread can be enjoyed during your experience at Laugavatn Wellness Resort and Geothermal Bakery while you indulge in steam baths, mineral pools, and saunas. They share that “Guests can experience the geothermal bakery first hand and see as we dig out a pot of fresh bread from the hot black sand.” The reason I enjoyed this bread so much was because it almost resembles cake with its sweetness and consistency but pairs so nicely with things like lamb stew or salmon. The tradition of making this bread is very important to the people of Iceland so it was great having the opportunity to enjoy one of the foods from their homeland in the way it was meant to be prepared.
Skyr is a very popular Icelandic staple as well. This dairy product is made from pasteurized skimmed milk and bacteria culture, giving it a consistency and flavor similar to Greek yogurt or Creme Fraiche. It’s technically a cheese, but it’s similar to what we American’s know as Greek yogurt so don’t take the cheese part too literally. It’s rich and creamy with mild flavor and is frequently served with fruit, berry jam, or cream. One of the favorite guesthouses we stayed in served Skyr for breakfast. The owner spoke very little English, but had a wide smile on her face as she showed me how to prepare it : A spoonful of blackberry preserves, a splash of cream, and a sprinkle of brown sugar. We sat at a small table by the window watching the snow fall and enjoying this sweet treat before starting our day. We also had skyr as a type of desert. At Matur Og Drykkur we enjoyed skyr with caramel and an arctic thyme biscuit to finish our meal. Traveling Iceland’s wilderness can be tiring so this is a great way to fill up on some protein before a long day of adventuring.
The lamb in Iceland is some of the best I have ever had. Icelandic sheep roam freely across hillsides, grazing as they’d like. Their natural environment has been unaltered and they nourish themselves as they would in the wild, rather than being fed as livestock. You see lamb served a variety of ways throughout Iceland. Enjoy it slow roasted with blóðberg (Arctic thyme) and served with rustic root vegetables, as a savory stew, or a delicate sirloin.
As for seafood, it’s very common to see menus that are primarily seafood based at restaurants. During our stay I had the opportunity to try a few dishes including lobster, crab, cod, salmon, and halibut. There are hundreds of varieties of saltwater fish surrounding Iceland and a few variations of freshwater salmon in their fresh water rivers and streams. We’d spend afternoons eating langoustine on fresh rolls, fish and chips made from wild caught cod, or smoked salmon for breakfast. We ate more langoustine on our trip than anything; these small lobsters were absolutely delicious and were regularly served in restaurants. A personal favorite of mine was a warm, toasted bun filled with deep fried langoustine, bell pepper jam, lettuce, garlic mayor and Tindur cheese from Íslenski barin.
Reindeer is another ingredient you’ll see on menus while visiting. During your travels around the ring road, you’ll see Reindeer freely grazing in pastures and huddled together in the snow. It’s beautiful watching them in the wilderness. One of the absolute best meals we had while visiting was at Íslenski barin where we enjoyed a reindeer burger with camembert cheese, lettuce, bell pepper, wild berry jam, garlic mayo, and sweet potato fries. We enjoyed it so much that we actually came back a second time to enjoy it. Another place we really enjoyed was Matur Og Drykkur where we enjoyed reindeer croquettes, blue cheese, and crowberry jam.
Indulging in a tasting menu or exploring local grocery stores and small town’s restaurants will allow you the opportunity to try things such as Hákarl (fermented shark), Minke whale, Harðfiskur (dried fish), Svið (sheep’s head), Saltfiskur (salted fish), Gellur (cod tongues), Hvalspik (blubber — commonly from Minke whale), and Lundi (puffin). We personally steered clear of these ingredients, but give it a go if you’re brave at heart. Minke whale is common and frequents the chilly waters of the Atlantic Ocean surrounding Iceland. In this region, Minke whale is not endangered and is hunted for food.
I will say that the most expensive part of our trip to Iceland was the food. Take into consideration the limited environment and need for imported goods. This makes their food more expensive, especially in touristy areas. We tried to go to local grocery stores and pick up deli meat, skyr, and snacks when possible to keep our costs down. Picking up quick food like hot dogs will keep your costs down as well.