What, exactly, is Icelandic cuisine? If you’ve heard of any Icelandic food, it’s likely hákarl, the traditional fermented shark (translated: “rotting shark”) whose smell ranks somewhere between putrid cheese and a never-cleaned urinal. Even many extreme eaters can’t stomach it, including Anthony Bourdain (“the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he’s ever eaten) and Andrew Zimmern (“the most horrific thing I've ever breathed in my life“). If you haven’t been raised with the stuff, attempting a taste is only for the strong of stomach and adventurous of spirit. Or the truly unhinged.
If you can’t quite imagine putting yourself through such misery, and you’re equally averse to other Icelandic specialties — like maybe you’re a little squeamish about the ethics of hunting whale or horse and can’t contemplate eating something as cute as a puffin — what is there to eat? Plenty, it turns out. Tucked up by the Arctic Circle, Iceland’s harsh climate isn’t exactly conducive to great produce. But its waters and its vast open lands do offer plenty for the hungry traveler.
1. Fish, everywhere
Seafood abounds in Iceland’s cold waters, beyond the aforementioned shark and whale. At Snaps Bistro in Reykjavik, you’ll find some of the best smoked salmon anywhere, meltingly tender and perfumed by rich wood smoke. At Café Loki, you can get luscious smoked herring atop homemade rye bread. And at the bare-bones Sægreifinn on the water, you’ll find hefty grilled salmon kebabs.
Eating and drinking is expensive in Iceland, but comparatively speaking, lobster isn’t pricey at all. Sægreifinn’s lobster soup is a must-try, creamy and intriguingly spiced and absolutely brimming with generous chunks of lobster.
In an island with as much open space (and so few people) as Iceland, there’s no need to keep lambs cooped up. They’re allowed to roam freely in mountain pastures all summer, grazing on the landscape’s natural vegetation, before farmers round them up in the fall. The result is meat that’s exceptionally tender, a little sweet, and just so…lamb-y. The meat is equally tasty as tender chops or in a lamb sandwich — local chain Hlölla Bátar’s “lamb boat,” with pickled cabbage and fried onion, is perhaps the best fast-food sandwich we’ve had anywhere.
4. Hot Dogs
Hot dogs are ubiquitous in Iceland, and their distinctive flavor is due to, again, that awesome lamb, which appears in most ‘dogs along with pork and beef. At famed hot dog shack Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, equally appealing for a cheap lunch or a 2am refuel, the snappy dogs are topped with fried onions, raw onions, and mustard. Ordering a “Clinton” will get you just mustard, as the former president did on a visit a few years back. (No fried onions, really?)
The staple food of Iceland, skyr has its own aisle in every supermarket and convenience store. Best thought of as a yogurt (though technically it’s a strained cheese), the rich dairy is ideal for breakfast, often stirred with cream and sugar. But there are also skyr-based sauces, skyr desserts, skyr drinks… there’s nothing this wonder-food can’t do.