Exploring Iceland Food: Traditional Dishes, Unique Sweets, and Signature Drinks

If you’re planning a trip to Iceland, you’re in for a treat—literally. Icelandic cuisine is a unique blend of flavors and traditions that you won’t find anywhere else in the world. From hearty seafood dishes to unusual local delicacies, the food in Iceland is as intriguing as the island itself.

Iceland’s culinary landscape has roots in Nordic traditions, dating back to the 9th century when the island was first settled. As a foodie, you’ll want to dive into these traditional dishes to truly embrace Icelandic culture. Whether you’re renting a car to explore remote villages or sticking to Reykjavik’s vibrant food scene, there’s a world of flavors waiting to be discovered.

In this article, I’ll share the must-try Icelandic foods that will make your trip unforgettable. From fermented shark to creamy skyr, get ready to eat like a local and savor the best of what Iceland has to offer.

What Do They Eat in Iceland?

Iceland’s cuisine offers a fascinating mix of preserved and fresh foods. Fish remains central to Icelandic diets. Icelanders consume fish like haddock, cod, and Atlantic wolffish around twice per week. Fresh fish here often comes from the same day’s catch. Popular Icelandic fish include Greenland shark, three salmon species (Arctic char, Atlantic salmon, brown trout), and dealfish.

Beyond fish, Icelandic food reflects its history and geography. Traditional dishes like “hákarl” (fermented shark) and “svið” (boiled sheep’s head) can still be found, though they’re less common today. During the 1950s and 1960s, fish was eaten daily, even for breakfast. Fish oil is a staple too, with Icelanders consuming it about four times per week.

Dairy also plays a significant role in Icelandic cuisine. “Skyr,” a creamy, yogurt-like cheese, has been enjoyed for centuries. The modern diet includes a variety of dairy products, which are integral to daily meals.

Lamb is another key feature in Icelandic cuisine. Raised in natural environments, Icelandic lamb offers a unique flavor. Traditional dishes like “hangikjöt” (smoked lamb) and “kjötsúpa” (lamb stew) remain popular. Salted meats, once common, have become rarer.

Influences from neighboring Nordic countries, especially Denmark, shaped Icelandic food. Settled in the 9th century, the island adopted many traditional foods from the first settlers. Danish culture left its mark in the late 1800s, seen in local recipes.

Iceland experienced a fishing industry boom in the early 1900s, making fish a staple on Icelanders’ tables. Today, modern Icelandic cuisine blends traditional tastes with contemporary flavors. From fresh seafood to hearty lamb dishes, the food in Iceland offers a culinary journey reflecting its rich history and vibrant culture.

Traditional Icelandic Fish and Seafood

Iceland boasts an impressive array of traditional fish and seafood dishes that reflect its rich maritime heritage. These culinary delights provide a taste of Iceland’s pristine waters and sustainable fishing practices.

Hardfiskur – Stockfish

Hardfiskur, or stockfish, is a dried fish delicacy that’s been a staple in Icelandic diets for centuries. Made by hanging fish, commonly cod or haddock, on wooden racks to dry in the cold, windy air, hardfiskur exemplifies natural preservation methods. It’s available in grocery stores and the Kolaportid Flea Market. Icelanders often eat it as a snack, straight from the bag, or spread with butter. The drying process imbues the fish with a unique, intense flavor, making it a traditional yet still beloved treat.

Plokkfiskur – Fish Stew

Plokkfiskur is a quintessential Icelandic comfort food. This hearty fish stew combines mashed fish, usually cod or haddock, with potatoes, onions, and a creamy white sauce. Often served with dark rye bread, plokkfiskur is a testament to Iceland’s resourcefulness and ability to create delicious dishes from simple ingredients. It remains a favorite in many households and restaurants, particularly during the colder months.

Humar – Icelandic Lobster

Humar, the Icelandic lobster, is a delicacy known for its tenderness and exquisite taste. Unlike traditional lobsters, humar is smaller and has a more delicate flavor. Commonly served grilled, in soups, or roasted with garlic butter, it holds a special place in Icelandic cuisine. Seafood lovers visiting Iceland should not miss the opportunity to try humar, as it’s a prime example of the country’s excellent seafood offerings. Many restaurants feature it as a highlight on their menus, showcasing the culinary mastery of Icelandic chefs.

Icelandic Bread

Icelandic bread has a deep-rooted cultural significance and comes in many varieties, each with unique preparation methods and rich history. These breads reflect the resourcefulness and traditions of Icelandic people.

Laufabraud – Leaf Bread

Laufabraud, or leaf bread, is a traditional bread made before Christmas. It’s a thin, round flatbread decorated with intricate, leaflike geometric patterns. Families gather to create beautiful designs before quickly frying the bread in a pan. Laufabraud is served with butter during Christmas dinner, symbolizing the holiday spirit. This bread, also known as Icelandic Christmas bread, plays an essential role in holiday celebrations.

Flatkaka – Rye Flatbread

Flatkaka, a thin, round rye flatbread, dates back to around 1000 AD. Initially baked on hot stones or embers, it later transitioned to heavy cast iron frying pans. This method gave flatkaka its distinct spotted pattern. Traditionally, people spread it with butter and topped it with smoked lamb for a hearty meal. The bread’s long history showcases its integral role in Icelandic cuisine.

Rugbraud – Icelandic Rye Bread

Rugbraud, a dark rye bread, offers a unique baking method. It’s baked in a pot or wooden cask near geothermal hot springs, resulting in a crustless, dense loaf. Pieces of rugbraud are often topped with butter or served alongside fish dishes. The bread’s sweet taste, thick consistency, and traditional preparation reflect Iceland’s natural resources and culinary ingenuity.

Icelandic Pastries and Sweet Bread

Iceland offers a diverse array of pastries and sweet bread that delight both locals and visitors. These treats showcase the nation’s creativity and culinary tradition.


Kleina, a fried dough pastry, is an Icelandic must-try. Slightly crispy on the outside and soft inside, it’s lightly flavored with cardamom and dusted with sugar. Beloved in Scandinavia and Germany during Christmas time, in Iceland, it’s enjoyed year-round. According to legend, a boy dropped a piece of dough into hot grease, resulting in Kleina. This treat’s twisted shape ensures it cooks evenly.


Snudur, Iceland’s take on a cinnamon roll, is large and coated with thick icing. Its origins are somewhat unclear, but it has Scandinavian ties. There are three common varieties: pink glaze, chocolate glaze, or caramel glaze. Some bakeries get creative, incorporating flavors like vanilla, blueberries, or licorice into the roll.

Ponnukokur – Icelandic Pancakes

Unlike typical breakfast pancakes, Ponnukokur are thin crepes. They are usually served rolled up with sugar or folded with rhubarb jam and whipped cream. These pancakes are popular for afternoon family gatherings, often paired with black coffee or cold milk.

Vinarbraud – Icelandic Viennoiserie

Vinarbraud resembles a long Danish pastry. Layers of glaze, jam, almonds, and custard make this treat special. Inspired by a classic Danish pastry, it’s highly popular in Iceland, reflecting the close culinary ties between the two nations.

These pastries and sweet bread items showcase the rich, diverse flavors found in Icelandic bakeries.

Icelandic Lamb

Icelandic lamb is renowned for its distinct flavor, resulting from the sheep’s natural diet of grass, berries, and seaweed. These animals roam freely in the countryside, giving the meat a unique and tender quality.

Hangikjot – Smoked Lamb

Hangikjot, meaning “hung meat,” is a traditional Icelandic smoked lamb dish created to preserve food during long winters. The lamb hangs on rafters in a smoking shed, with birch wood or dried sheep dung mixed with hay burning beneath it for preservation. This dish is immensely popular, with around 90% of Icelanders enjoying it at least once during the holiday season. Hangikjot is typically served thinly sliced on sandwiches or traditional flatkaka bread. Its unique flavor and preservation method make it a staple in Icelandic cuisine.

Islensk Kjotsupa – Icelandic Meat Soup

Islensk kjotsupa, or Icelandic meat soup, is made from tougher bits of lamb, hearty vegetables, and local herbs. This soup is perfect for cold winter days and is available in many cafes and restaurants. Historically, sheep meat was cut down and served in soup with sour milk and barley, but over time, hearty vegetables like carrots and potatoes were added. This evolution reflects Iceland’s adaptation to global trade routes in the late 19th century.

Pylsa – Hot Dog

Known for its unique taste, the Icelandic pylsa hot dog is made from a combination of lamb, beef, and pork. The hot dog is served in a bun with various toppings, including raw onions, fried onions, mustard, ketchup, and remoulade sauce. Pylsa stands can be found throughout Iceland, making it a popular street food choice. This beloved snack exemplifies Iceland’s ability to transform simple ingredients into delicious, memorable dishes.

Traditional Food in Iceland

Traditional Icelandic food boasts a unique charm drawing from the nation’s natural resources and historical practices. Here are some must-try traditional dishes to experience Iceland’s culinary heritage.


Skyr, a staple in Iceland, resembles yogurt but is technically a cheese. High in protein and low in fat, skyr has a creamy texture and slightly tart taste. It’s available in various flavors like berry and vanilla, but many enjoy it plain with a drizzle of honey or sliced fruit.

Skata – Fermented Skate

Skata, or fermented skate, is a traditional dish often served during the Christmas season. Known for its strong ammonia smell, it’s prepared by fermenting skate for several weeks. This dish is usually accompanied by boiled potatoes and melted sheep fat.

Slatur – Icelandic Liver Pudding

Slatur, meaning “slaughter,” includes dishes like blood pudding and liver sausage. Made from lamb’s blood, liver, and suet, these traditional items are typically enjoyed boiled or fried, often served with mashed potatoes and turnips.

Hakarl – Fermented Shark

Hakarl, fermented Greenland shark, offers an adventurous dining experience. Known for its pungent aroma and strong taste, it’s prepared by curing the shark meat in a shallow pit for several months. Locals often suggest eating hakarl with a shot of Brennivín, an Icelandic schnapps, to complement the strong flavor.

Svid – Boiled Sheep Head

Svid, a traditional Icelandic dish, involves boiling a sheep’s head. The head is cleaned and singed, then boiled and served with mashed turnips and potatoes. This dish, rooted in Iceland’s history of utilizing every part of the animal, is still enjoyed today.

Hrutspungar – Pickled Ram Testicles

Hrutspungar, pickled ram testicles, are a traditional food item utilizing Icelandic preservation techniques. Often served as part of the Þorramatur platter during the mid-winter festival Þorrablót, hrutspungar are a testament to the resourcefulness of Icelandic cuisine.


Puffin, a seabird native to Iceland, is traditionally smoked or grilled. With a flavor similar to gamey duck, puffin is often served with a side of rye bread and butter. The practice of hunting puffins has deep roots in Icelandic culture, offering a taste of the country’s seafaring history.

Icelandic Sweets and Confectionery

Icelanders have a serious sweet tooth. From unique ice cream variations to their distinctive licorice, Icelandic sweets offer delightful flavors that stand out.

Icelandic Ice Cream

Icelandic ice cream is beloved, enjoyed regardless of the weather. Soft-serve vanilla, often dipped in chocolate and covered in candy, is the most popular variety. For an elaborate treat, try a bragdarefur. This involves vanilla ice cream mixed with three types of candy or fruit in a large mixer. Icelanders particularly enjoy ice cream after a dip in one of the geothermal pools, making this frozen delight a year-round indulgence.

Lakkris – Icelandic Liquorice

Lakkris, Icelandic liquorice, holds a special place in local confectionery. Made with both sweet and salty varieties, it often surprises those unfamiliar with its unique taste. Salty liquorice remains a favorite, blending bold flavors that many Icelanders grew up with. You’ll find it in various forms, from candies and chocolate-covered pieces to ice cream toppings. If you’re in Iceland, lakkris is a must-try for a true taste of local flavors.

Icelandic Alcohol

Iceland has a rich and varied alcohol tradition deeply rooted in its history. From potent spirits to unique craft beers, Iceland offers a fascinating exploration for any beverage enthusiast.


Brennivin, often called “Black Death,” is Iceland’s signature distilled beverage. First produced in 1935 to celebrate the end of prohibition, this clear, unsweetened schnapps flavored with caraway seeds has become iconic. The black label was meant to make it unappealing, but it has since become a national symbol. The Egill Skallagrimsson Brewery, which still uses the original recipe, produces it today. Modern iterations include versions infused with angelica and dulse, adding a contemporary twist to a classic. Try brennivin in traditional cocktails like the Black Rose or Brennivin Bouquet to taste this historic spirit.

Icelandic Liquor

Icelandic liquor also includes unique options like Opal and Tópas, licorice-flavored spirits named after popular candies. These spirits stand out for their distinctive taste, based on Iceland’s beloved licorice lozenges. For whiskey lovers, Floki Whiskey is a must-try. Made entirely from Icelandic ingredients, including homegrown barley, it offers a true taste of Icelandic terroir. Many distilleries draw inspiration from the island’s natural elements, creating schnapps, vodka, and gin infused with local ingredients like birch, rhubarb, and crowberries. Experiencing these beverages offers a deeper connection to Icelandic nature.

Icelandic Craft Beer

Craft beer in Iceland has seen significant growth, blending traditional brewing with local ingredients. Gull, made with Icelandic barley and water, is one of the top four lagers in the country and best served ice cold. The beer was banned from 1915 until 1989, making its return highly celebrated with Bjórdagurinn, or Beer Day, on March 1st each year. Local breweries often experiment with native herbs, berries, and even volcanic water, creating brews that are uniquely Icelandic. Today, microbreweries across the country offer a wide array of flavors and styles, making the Icelandic beer scene diverse and exciting.

Immerse yourself in the world of Icelandic alcohol, from traditional brennivin to innovative craft beers, for a unique cultural experience.

Modern-Day Icelandic Food

Icelandic cuisine has truly evolved into a fascinating tapestry of traditional and modern flavors. While the roots of Nordic traditions are still evident, the influence of neighboring cultures has added depth and variety. From the bold tastes of fermented shark and sheep’s head to the delightful sweetness of unique ice cream and licorice, Iceland offers a culinary adventure like no other.

The country’s alcohol scene is equally compelling. Signature drinks like Brennivin and craft beers brewed with local ingredients provide a unique taste of Iceland’s natural bounty. Exploring Icelandic food and drink is more than just a culinary journey; it’s a way to connect with the country’s rich cultural heritage and innovative spirit. So if you ever find yourself in Iceland, be sure to indulge in its diverse and exciting food scene. You won’t be disappointed.

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Erik Rivera