International Cooking: Food from Iceland

I’d heard a few things about food from Iceland that made me wary, such as the country’s apparent love of fermented fish! But I was sure there would be something I could make that I would enjoy this week.

Iceland is an Island country situated between North America and Europe, though it is culturally and politically linked to Europe. It is located on a rift between tectonic plates which means the country has many geysers and frequent volcanic eruptions.

It is thought that the first settlers in Iceland came from Norway in 874. These settlers and those who followed established a parliament, which independently governed the country until Iceland gave in to Norwegian rule in the 13th century. Later, Iceland was ruled by Denmark and eventually gained independence.

Iceland became one of the wealthiest and most developed nations in the world after World War II, partially due to the industrialization of fisheries. Today, Iceland is similar to other Nordic countries in that it is progressive and has a high quality of life. Iceland is the only NATO member with no standing army; they only have a lightly armed coast guard.

What Do People Eat in Iceland?

Fish and seafood have long been staple foods in Iceland, as they were probably the easiest to obtain. Sheep and other livestock were introduced later, and lamb became common. Horse meat, often made into a smoked sausage, is quite common. Fish and meat were preserved through smoking, drying, and pickling, and although these methods are not as necessary today, they are still a common part of Icelandic cuisine.

Milk, cheese, and yogurt are also important. You may have heard of skyr, which I’ve been able to buy from my supermarket in the US for quite a while now. It has the consistency of Greek yogurt, and you eat it like yogurt, but it is technically a soft cheese. Skyr has been made in Iceland since medieval times. Traditionally, it was made with sheep milk, but it is must more common today to use cow milk.

It was difficult to grow crops because of the thin volcanic soil and harsh climate, but farmers did try, with varying success. They were able to grow grains such as oats and barley, but at one point these crops were no longer successful and they had to trade for them. In more recent years, it has become possible to grow barley again. A variety of breads and pastries are available in Iceland today.

Icelandic farmers began growing vegetables in the late 17th century, but it’s not until more recently that this had become common. Iceland still relies on imports for most sweet fruit.

What I Made

Scroll down to read about other popular Icelandic dishes I didn’t make!

Boiled Fish and Potatoes with Peas

Boiled Fish and Potatoes with Peas

It seems many people in Iceland remember eating boiled haddock and potatoes for dinner growing up, often with little to no seasoning. No, that doesn’t sound appealing, but it was common enough that I thought I would represent it this week, especially since I was a bit low on other dishes.

I used cod instead of haddock and poached it in salted water. I boiled some baby potatoes and added peas too. To add a little flavor, I drizzled over some lemon parsley butter.

This was a simple meal but pretty good.

Kjötsúpa (Lamb and Vegetable Soup)

Kjötsúpa (Lamb and Vegetable Soup)

This is a soup made from lamb and vegetables, usually root vegetables and cabbage. It’s seasoned simply; Iceland has very good lamb so I think that’s where most of the flavor is meant to come from.

I started by sautéing some onion, then added the lamb, salt, parsley, thyme, a few juniper berries, and enough water to cover everything. The recipe only said to add ‘dried herbs’ so I looked up some common Icelandic seasonings and chose the parsley, thyme, and juniper berries.

After cooking the lamb for a while, I added chunks of turnip, potato, and carrot, then later added cabbage and seasoned to taste.

I served this with a sprinkle of fresh parsley. It was a simple soup but delicious. I read that lamb bought in the US isn’t as good in this soup. Mine was bought here but it’s from Australia, and as someone who grew up there I’ve always loved the lamb. It’s possible that Icelandic lamb is better, and I would love to try it someday.

The recipe I used for this is from Your Friend in Reykjavik.

Plokkfiskur (Fish and Potato Stew)

Plokkfiskur (Fish and Potato Stew)

Plokkfiskur is a simple stew made from onion, white fish, and potato. Traditionally, there wasn’t much else to it, but more recently a few additions have become common. Often, a bechamel sauce is included to make the soup thick and creamy, and mustard, garlic, or curry powder might be added for seasoning. Sometimes the soup is topped with cheese and run under a broiler.

To make my plokkfiskur, I started by cooking the onion in some butter. I added flour to make a roux, then stirred in milk to make a bechamel sauce. I seasoned this with a little mustard before adding cooked cod and boiled potatoes. Then I topped with harvati cheese and baked until the cheese melted. I chose to make my plokkfiskur in small ramekins which was an easy way to prepare less of the recipe.

Plokkfiskur is usually served with buttered rye bread; I added butter after the photo. I also added a small salad.

I really enjoyed this, much more than I thought I would. The recipe I used is from Whisk Averse Baking.

Rúgbrauð (Rye Bread)

Icelandic rye bread is a bit different to the rye I made for Denmark, Estonia, or Finland. It does not use a sourdough starter, or any yeast at all. Instead, this bread is leavened with baking powder and baking soda. It is also traditionally baked by burying it in a pot in the ground near a geyser. The geothermal heat slowly bakes the bread. This slow baking process breaks down the starch in the rye, making the bread sweet. This was something poor farmers enjoyed since they generally could not afford sugar.

Nowadays, rúgbrauð is commonly baked in a low oven. A sweetener of some kind is usually added; golden syrup is the most common. The recipe I followed included a mix of molasses and honey instead, which was easier for me to obtain.

I made my rúgbrauð by mixing rye flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda, which I combined with a mixture of buttermilk, honey, and molasses. I put the mixture into a loaf tin and covered it with greased foil. This is because I was meant to use a pullman loaf tin, which has a lid, but I didn’t have that.

I baked the bread for about 2 hours and let it cool before slicing. This bread is typically sliced thinly; probably because it’s quite dense and sweet. Mine wasn’t the nice square shape in the recipe due to not having the right tin, but I’m still happy with how it turned out.

Although I liked this, it’s a bit sweeter than I like my rye bread to be. It would not be my go-to rye bread recipe; I think my favorite so far is the leib I made for Estonia.

If you’d like to try this, the recipe I used is from King Arthur Baking.

  • Hákarl – fermented and dried shark, considered Iceland’s national dish. The odor is apparently much stronger than the taste.
  • Pulsa/pylsa – a hotdog made mostly from Icelandic lamb, as well as pork and beef. Usually served on a bun with both raw and fried onion, ketchup, mustard, and remoulade. These hotdogs are extremely popular and I could have bought some online but they were expensive.
  • Hangiköt – smoked Icelandic lamb, usually served at Christmas. It can be eaten raw or cooked and served with potatoes in a bechamel sauce.
  • Laufabrauð – a flatbread decorated by cutting patterns into the dough before baking, usually served at Christmas.
  • Pönnukökur – thin crepe-like pancakes. Popular fillings include skyr, fruit, or jam.

Final Thoughts

I enjoyed cooking food from Iceland! I can’t really say I liked one thing more than the others. Maybe I’ll say my favorite is the rúgbrauð since it’s so versatile. I’ve been enjoying it with all kinds of sweet and savory toppings!

Next week, I will be cooking food from India.

Join the Conversation

  1. Betty McMahon says:

    The Icelandic dishes all look very appetising and not too complicated. I’ll be trying the rye bread! Also, could you use smoked cod in the fish recipes?

    1. Yes, I think smoked cod would work if that is what you would like to use. I hope you like the rye bread; it’s good but it is really quite sweet so be prepared!

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