Before traveling to Iceland for the first time, we were so excited to learn more about its history. Food culture is really important in my family, so we especially love delving into the food history of every place we visit. Iceland was particularly fascinating to learn about due to a combination of its geographical location, its isolation as an island, the different settlements and occupations that have occurred over the years, as well as the available (and sometimes limited) resources.
Iceland’s food history is heavily tied to their settler history. With the Scandinavians and Vikings, you see subsistence farming and meat curing. With the Danish, you see their baking reflected in modern day Icelandic culture. You’d think fishing would’ve been a huge part of Iceland’s early food history, but it surprisingly was not. Early settlers were primarily farmers from Norway and seemed intent on continuing their farming lifestyle on this small island even in the harsher conditions. Fishing villages were surprisingly uncommon until fish became a major part of the Icelandic economy in the 20th century.
Because of these aforementioned harsher conditions, resources have been a challenge for Iceland. With Iceland’s colder climate and limited sunlight, hunting and fishing were riskier and more difficult propositions. They needed to find ways to make their food last for longer periods of time. Necessity being the mother of invention, this is why Iceland’s food culture is steeped in preservation-based traditions — fermenting, smoking, salting, curing. There are even foods that were preserved inside jello in order to keep it edible longer.
Iceland’s relative isolation made importing difficult, too. In the 1600s, the Danish king forced a trade monopoly with Iceland that lasted into the 1700s. Shortly after, Laki erupted, and wiped out crops, livestock, and a large percentage of the population. In the early 1800s, the Napoleonic Wars kept merchant ships from being able to reach Iceland. This is where modern Icelandic cuisine really sees its birth, because of a growth in self-reliance. In the 1900s, you saw two big shifts. One was a shift toward honoring traditional Icelandic cuisine, like fermented shark and lamb heads. And the other, due in part to World War II and U.S. occupation, was popularizing American fast food.
One more controversial part of Icelandic food history is their participation in the whaling industry. Whaling can be traced back to around the 1600s in Iceland, even earlier in the waters around Iceland (but not by Icelanders). Since then, it’s been a fairly important part of their food and financial history. That Danish trade monopoly I mentioned? Icelanders circumvented it with whale trading. Over the years, you’ll see a back and forth from the Icelandic government of whether or not they should participate in the whaling trade, including not objecting to the 1982 International Whaling Commission (IWC) vote in favor of a moratorium on commercial whaling by 1986. During this time, Iceland still continued hunting whales for scientific research and then formally left the IWC in 1992.
In 2006, Iceland started issuing licenses for commercial whale hunting and that has continued on through today. That being said, in 2020, the two whaling companies in Iceland both announced that whaling was no longer profitable and that they would cease hunting whales going forward. While whale meat might’ve been part of Icelandic food culture historically, it’s not really part of modern Icelandic food culture. It seems that whale consumption is primarily tourist-led.
With advancements in technology and geothermal energy utilization, modern Iceland is much more self-sustaining, but there are still challenges. A lot of vegetables are greenhouse grown. Many sweet fruits still need to be imported. Meat variety is definitely dependent on what is regularly raised in the country. In all honesty, Icelandic cuisine hasn’t changed all that much over the past thousand years or so. It is still centered around meat (mainly lamb), dairy (read: skyr) and fish.
So, what can you expect when traveling to Iceland? You will find a beautiful combination of traditional Iceland foods, related to the early settlers who made Iceland their home and resources available in Iceland, as well as international dishes also often benefitting from those same resources. For instance, you’ll find pizza, hamburgers and french fries readily available across Iceland. What I love, though, is that there is often an Icelandic spin. For instance, they will serve kartoflukrydd, or potato spice, with their french fries. Usually in these very tiny plastic bags that are unlabeled. It’s this salty, paprika and tomato based seasoning and it’s absolutely delicious.
What are some notable Iceland treats you need to try?
- Pylsa: That Icelandic hot dog you’ve likely seen on IG and so many food blogs that is so ubiquitous it’s become akin to a national treasure? It’s made from a blend of lamb, beef, and pork, and topped with fried onions, chopped raw onion, ketchup, mustard, and remoulade.
- Kjötsúpa: Iceland is known for delicious soups and stews, especially since they can keep you warm during the many cold nights. Arguably the most famous is Icelandic Lamb Soup. Made with tougher pieces of lamb, hearty vegetables and Icelandic herbs.
- Skyr: While many people call Skyr a yogurt, it is actually a cheese. It is very unique to Iceland and also very popular. This popular treat has been a staple of the Icelandic diet since the Viking-era and folks, it’s absolutely delicious.
Read more about my top 10 favorite Icelandic foods here.