If you are a culinary adventurer, the cuisine of Iceland may be just the fantastic quest you’re seeking. Even if you’re not, there’s plenty of international and American food here to satisfy most everyone.
But the Icelandic dishes certainly offer travelers a chance to step outside their comfort zones and sample things they might never be offered in other countries. Even some of the more-familiar foods have a decidedly Icelandic twist when reproduced here.
Take, for example, the Icelandic yogurt. I know you’re thinking – yawn – yogurt is yogurt no matter the country that produces it. How wrong you would be.
Icelandic yogurt, called Skyr, is unlike any yogurt I’ve ever eaten. Much more subtly sweet than American varieties, it also has a texture all its own. Something like a cross between the consistency of Greek yogurt and a good brie cheese, Skyr is heavenly. You can find it at any grocery store and most fast food places. The nicer restaurants serve it as dessert with fresh berries, nuts or muesli and perhaps a caramel sauce. It can also be whipped to form a mousse-like confection and served with fresh fruit and whipped cream.
Also good are the cheeses produced on the island. Many restaurants serve cheese plates or will serve their own diced on salads, as a sandwich or in other dishes. Baked goods are also readily available in almost every small town.
Of course, the lamb is first-rate. Because most of the sheep here are raised free-range, the lamb often has somewhat of a gamier flavor than that produced in the United States. And it’s served in all sorts of dishes – from soups to barbecues to roasts. One of the tastiest pieces of lamb I sampled consisted of a rosette of smoked raw lamb served with a delicate dipping sauce.
Then there are the more exotic meats. I’ve written in another post here about the Icelanders’ taste for horse. You can also find reindeer steak in some restaurants as well as whale. Numerous birds are served in restaurants, even, they say, dishes made with puffin (although I’ve never seen it on a menu).
A ubiquitous inexpensive meat is the Icelandic hot dog, which is served at almost all gas stations or fast food restaurants. It is NOT, the typical American hot dog but rather a tastier combination of lamb, beef and pork and topped with onions, ketchup, mustard and a remoulade (ask for a hot dog with “everything”).
A bread staple of the area around Mývatn lake is hverbraud, or geysirbread (pictured above with the rosette of lamb). It’s dark, heavy bread made with rye that’s baked underground using geothermal heat. It has a sweetish taste, almost as if flavored with molasses. While in Mývatn, I also sampled an ice cream made with geysirbread as a base.
Seafood is here in abundance. Langoustine is the Icelandic answer to lobster, a much smaller and sweeter shellfish that lives in very cold water. Shrimp, scallops and mussels are all harvested in the waters off the island and appear on many menus.
The types of fish are dizzying and range from haddock and Arctic char to skate and the meaty monkfish (also called devil fish). Harðfiskur is haddock that has been dried in the open air until it becomes dehydrated and brittle. It has been a staple of Icelandic life for generations.
As far as beverages, Icelanders love their coffee. Almost any restaurant or small diner has a wide variety of coffees – lattes, cappuccino, expresso. You can also get tea, but it’s considered a poor second choice.
It was very difficult to find bottled water here, and well it should be. Most water out of the faucet comes from the nearest glacier, so bottled water isn’t necessary. If you’re traveling, however, bring an empty water bottle along to replenish at any stop.
And, then there’s alcohol. Also seems to be a staple of the Icelandic diet. You need to be 20 to buy beer and there are numerous varieties brewed in Iceland. The traditional Icelandic alcoholic beverage (other than beer) is brennivin, which is a schnapps made from potatoes and flavored with caraway seeds. I found it very strong and potent.
The down side of all this culinary prosperity is the cost. Eating any main meal in a restaurant will probably range from $40 to $70 per plate. Many of the guesthouses offer “simple” Icelandic breakfasts that include some of these items, such as smoked char or trout, and are better deals.
Hot dogs can be found anywhere. All guesthouses and hostels I’ve seen come with kitchens available so cooking-in is also a possibility.
But if you’re visiting the island and crave a gustatory adventure, put a few dollars aside to sample the differences.
Makes me hungry… And I am wondering if being vegetarian can be put on hold…