Text by: Agata Ryszkowska
Due to the fact that Iceland is located just under the Arctic Circle and it’s covered with lava fields, the cuisine of the country is quite distinctive. What Icelanders used to eat? How the environment influenced their diet? Do they still cultivate their traditions? If you’re curious what to expect on your trip to the land of ice and fire, let’s dive right into this topic.
The history Iceland was settled in 9th century mostly by farmers from Norway and its culture is closely linked to the Nordic one. During the Medieval time in Iceland the climate wasn’t that harsh which let the inhabitants to grow numerous kinds of grains, which later used to be consumed as porridge or gruel. Fishing and raising farm animals such like poultry, goats, pigs and sheep was a huge part of the diet. Due to the lack of sunlight throughout half of the year the Icelandic diet wasn’t exactly diverse.
Several historical events were also quite significant to the cuisine, like Christianization that brought the idea of fasting and a ban of horse meat consumption, or like the Little Ice Age in the 14th century which resulted in not being able to grow barley anymore and having to import various kinds of grains. The eruption of Laki in 1783 and Napoleonic wars also resulted in having to be self-reliant. In the 18th century the first cookbook was published which consisted of upper- class cuisine from Denmark-Norway that were transformed into a less expensive, more common version.
Growing vegetables was rather rare up until 19th century, when resistant kinds of veggies has started to be cultivated, such as cabbage, turnip or potato but traditional Icelandic food mainly
consisted of seafood, lamb and other sorts of meat that had to go through some kind of preservation process. The traditional cuisine. Lots of nations have their very own traditional ways of preserving food and Iceland is one of them. For example: fish was stored in salt or hung up to dry. Icelanders used to eat it instead of having a piece of bread with a meal. This method is still cultivated; in every single store you can find dried fish, which was traditionally produced outside, where the salty ocean air would blow through the product. It would take up to 6 weeks to get the desirable result but thanks to the modern technology it only takes up to 48 hours. You can still easily find places around Iceland where you can see and smell the dried fish, for example around Grótta on Seltjarnarnes Peninsula just outside Reykjavik.
Alright, having read through the not so exciting part of the history, let’s talk about the ‚rotten’ shark (hákarl). Is it really rotten? No, not really. In the traditional process the shark meat would have been buried in the ground and… peed on. Then it would’ve been left to ferment for several months and then hung up to dry up to five months. This method lets to get rid of acid which makes it rather impossible to eat fresh. It’s not so common anymore yet the older generations still cultivate it but without urinating on it. If you’re up to try it there’s no better place than flea market called Kolaportið, where in the food section you can get a small sample of it. Good luck!
Being rich in geothermal sources, Iceland learnt to use it in various ways. The traditional rye bread called rúgbrauð is still very popular. It’s a dense, dark moist bread with no crust with a slightly sweet aftertaste. It used to be baked in pots in placed in holes that were dug near hot springs. It’s often eaten with butter and some kind of fish, for example plokkfiskur. It’s a simple
fish stew that also consists of potatoes and onion. As you can expect, there is no unified recipe for this dish; every single family has its own. The consistency and the look aren’t really inviting but it can be delicious when prepared well.
The most common form animal in Iceland is sheep. They’re not only used for the food purposes but also for dairy and wool production. The most controversial dish that consists of sheep is… its head (svið). It became a thing at the time when people could not afford to waste any part of the slaughtered animal. It’s usually cut in half without fur and boiled with the brain removed. The connoisseurs say that the cheek and the tongue are the tastiest part. As surprising as it sounds, you can buy frozen svið basically in every supermarket. There are lots of other traditional dishes that are worth mentioning: meat soup called kjötsúpa or fish soup (fiskisúpa).
One of the most controversial dishes are whale and puffin meat. Even though it’s clearly stated that it’s absolutely harmful for the environment and the ecosystem to hunt these animals, you can still find them in some of the restaurants. Not cool, Iceland. Thumbs down. Trying to get rich by exploiting the environment is so passé. The most popular kind of food known outside borders of Iceland is probably skyr. It’s a dairy product with a consistency of a Greek yoghurt. It classifies as a cheese made out of fresh sour milk bit it’s eaten like if it was an actual yoghurt. It has various flavors and it’s known for the high percentage of protein. Just add fruits and granola to it and you’re set!
The modern diet It’s definitely way more diverse than it was ages ago. Thanks to the technological progress it’s possible to grow some vegetables and berries. Tomatoes and cucumbers are grown entirely in greenhouses. Iceland strongly relies on import which often leads to a poor quality of fruits and veggies. They’re picked before they’re ripe so they don’t rot while being transported.
Iceland is a rich, modern country that is open to new kinds of diets, foods and brands. The younger generation is more open when it comes to the new products and it doesn’t stick that much to the traditional dishes. There’s basically everything you could think of, the stores are well stocked and everyone can find what they’re looking for. There are lots of various restaurants that offer cuisine from all over the world that are also vegetarian and vegan friendly. Since the old Icelandic cuisine culture was based mainly on animal products, now it doesn’t have such a significant impact.
But you cannot write about Icelandic modern diet without mentioning pylsa, which is basically a… hot dog. It’s incredibly hyped though there’s actually nothing special in them (please don’t kill me for that!). There is one extremely popular hot dog stand in Reykjavik called Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur. It’s mostly famous for the fact that it was visited by Bill Clinton himself. Order a pylsa with saying „eina með öllu” and you’ll get a hot dog with all the possible toppings.
Verði þér að góðu!