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Food, Dining, & Drinks in Iceland

Culinary Influences

Iceland's culinary history is rather brief since the island has only been inhabited for about 1200 years. Their diet begins with the local fishing waters around the island, which includes whale and shark, although today numerous other fish are more popular. The island is also home to multiple migratory birds that can be eaten, including puffins, and has an environment in which sheep thrive, which provide both milk and meat. In addition to this, the island has a short growing season so limited fruits and vegetables, which has led to significant preservation methods for their foods. Additionally, to survive the long winters, their foods have traditionally been very heavy.

After Denmark took control of the island in the 1400s and gained further control over the next 400 years, their influence arrived on the dining table as well. Hearty vegetables replaced a lot of the dairy and meat that was eaten in the past as preservation took a backseat to fresh ingredients, although the short growing season still limited the variety of what could actually be grown. The Danes also introduced a number of pastries which continue to be popular in Iceland today.

In the modern day, Iceland's food selection has grown substantially as every part of the world is now represented. Pizza, sushi, and various ethnic foods are common, including Mexican, Indian, and Chinese. However, one food that has combined foreign influence with local quality is the "hot dog," which is made from lamb and can be found on street corner food stands and in gas stations throughout the country.

Staple Foods

There are a few foods that might be considered staple foods in Iceland, most notably skyr (description below), but none are common enough to constitute being a staple food. In addition to skyr, fish or lamb is found in nearly every dish.

Regional Variations & Specialties

Þorramatur: a dish with shark meat soaked in ammonia; more traditional than popular
Hangikjot: smoked lamb or mutton boiled and sliced; generally served with potatoes and peas in a dairy sauce
Kleina: deep fried dough
Plokkfiskur: cod, halibut, or haddock mashed with potatoes, onions, butter, flour, and milk, then topped with bearnaise or hollandaise sauce
Skyr: a cheese that looks and tastes like yogurt

Dining Etiquette

Icelandic Food - Cream buns
Cream buns

Although Iceland is known as an expensive country, they are a very informal country whose dining rules are based on family dining rather than on formal receptions or events. Being invited into a local's home (particularly for business) is somewhat common, but you are expected then to follow their protocol. This begins with a nice bottle of foreign wine as a gift, followed by removing your shoes at the door.

Whether in a home or at a restaurant, you will be considered a guest and their lax dining rules will be given even more flexibility for you as a foreigner, but do try to follow suit. Generally speaking, dining is similar to other Nordic countries and Europe. Eat in the continental style (knife in the right hand, fork in the left), keep your hands visible by resting your wrists on the table, and finish all the food on your plate. If there are shared dishes, don't take the last of the food from a plate unless you first ask and are granted permission.

At sit down restaurants, a service charge will be included and no additional tip is necessary. In fact, if you try to tip them, they may think you just over paid or forgot your money and may try to return it.

Drinks

Perhaps the most common drink in Iceland is coke as well as other soft drinks. In addition to this, all common non-alcoholic drinks are available including juices, milk, tea, and coffee.

For alcoholic beverages, Iceland's national drink is brennivin, which is a schnapps flavored with caraway seeds and affectionately known locally as "black death;" obviously it is rarely drank except during national festivals. Mead is also somewhat unique, but traditional in the country; in Iceland it is made by fermenting honey and water, then sometimes additional flavors are added. Today beer is generally the drink of choice for most people and many international brands are available.

Generally speaking, the tap water is safe to drink in Iceland, but check with locals for any particular regional differences. Also, many people may have troubles adjusting to the local tap water, as it will most certainly be different from what your system is used to.

This page was last updated: March, 2013