Sister city travel guide: Eating your way around Iceland

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A midnight stroll on the harborfront in Reykjavik. (Photo by Molly Goren)

It’s no coincidence that Seattle and Reykjavik have been sister cities since 1986.

Apart from Seattle having the largest Icelandic population outside of the country, our cities share a culture and economy influenced by marine industries, a dreary climate, fish-heavy cuisine, and a laid-back approach to urban life that includes the inevitable outdoor adventure.

Icelanders aren’t scared off by the rain — like us, they counter it with a vibrant indie music scene, a taste for coffee and clean, Nordic architecture, and killer sweaters.

With our Seattle sensibilities behind us, my sister and I cashed in on a free stopover in Iceland on our way home from France last month, part of an Iceland Air promotion. With a budget rental from the aptly named sadcars.com (our vehicle had no hubcaps), we had little trouble pulling together a four-day itinerary of amazing places to see while on the road, and spots to visit in the pedestrian-friendly city.

The bigger challenge was what to eat.

Coming from France, where the wine, cheese, and fresh produce seemed to be bursting from every menu and street market, we were prepared for a letdown. After all, the national dish is hákarl, prepared by placing rotten shark meat in a dug out hole to ferment for six weeks and then drying it out, to be washed down with Brennevin, a caraway schnapps.

Though the modern city has plenty of North-American style offerings, I remained committed to eating like the Icelanders do, which turned out to be plenty of yogurt and hot dogs.

As Mark Bittman put it, “it’s unlikely that Reykjavik will ever be a culinary destination, but that doesn’t mean you can’t eat well here.”

Best to spend your money on food worth eating, and save the rest for adventuring in the late-night city or in the beautiful countryside.

Here are a few tips to get you started:

Fish

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Fresh halibut skewers at Saegreifinn, where diners choose from refrigerator full of fish caught daily from the backyard harbor. (Photo by Molly Goren)

Limited in its capacity for agriculture and largely separated from the rest of Scandinavia, Icelandic food centers on what nature provides — fish. Fresh fish is caught and served year-round, from halibut and herring, and even minke whale.

A seafood shack on the harbor called Saegreifinn, translating to ‘The Sea Baron’, is always packed with both Icelanders and tourists. The unpretentious, tiny wood paneled hut is owned by a retired fisherman, offering only skewers of the catch of the day, a simple and perfect lobster soup, and packages of dulse, a salty dried red algae snack picked straight from the Atlantic, perfect for road trips.

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Inside Sægreifinn, reminiscent of Halifax or old Ballard. (Photo by Molly Goren)

Icelandic Fish and Chips is reflective of a modern culture that is pervasive in Reykjavik, hip to health trends and global influences. Called an ‘organic bistro’, they serve rotating fresh fish filets fried in a spelt batter, served with crispy potatoes and skyr dipping sauces (see below) in flavors like truffle and curry.

For the cheapest options, hit the grocery store, where curious packaged fish spreads and pâtés line the refrigerated foods section for those willing to eat what they cannot read or see.

I opted for a packet of harðfiskur, a wind-dried fish jerky. Though the grocery attendant had ensured me it was ‘delicious’ and ‘very salty’, only the latter came through. The pungent fishiness offended my sister, and I was left attempting to gnaw through its impossible texture while hanging my head out of the open car window.

Coffee

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Reykjavik Roasters, opened in 2008, is a cozy neighborhood cafe hailed for the best cup of coffee, brewed three different ways. Portlanders and Seattleites will approve. (Photo by Molly Goren)

The coffee scene in Reykjavik will make any Seattleite feel at home.

A distinct departure from the old-school espresso culture in the rest of Europe, Reykjavik has an impressive number of modern-style roasteries, and a focus on fair trade, bean varieties, and coffeehouse style. Visit Reykjavik Roasters and Kaffitár Bankastræti for excellent coffee and people watching.

And don’t be shy about indulging in your habit, either. With 18 hours of daylight in the summer and just a few in the winter, excessive coffee drinking is a way of life.

Skyr

Aside from being the single Icelandic food I could pronounce confidently, skyr stood out as the cheapest, healthiest, and most widely visible food in Iceland.

The strained yogurt is a staple in a food culture that until Iceland’s recent rise in popularity, has remained largely unchanged since the Viking Age. Icelanders will be the first to tell you that unlike European-style yogurt, skyr contains almost no fat and is high in protein, while retaining a rich, sour, and complex flavor.

It is eaten as a breakfast dish mixed with fruit, as a savory dipping sauce for fish and meats, and as a topping for desserts. In 2004, a homesick Icelander living in upstate New York began to make the product commercially, and Siggi’s Skyr can now be found in grocery stores across the U.S.

A customer once called it “the pudding of my heart” — I couldn’t agree more.

Breads

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Rugbrauð, is a dense, chewy and crustless rye similar to breads found in Scandinavia, traced back to the early modern period where it was cooked in pots buried in the active ground near hot-springs.  (Photo by Anna Goren)

Those with less time, money, and interest in bizarre foods ought to stick to the bread of butter of Icelandic food: bread and butter.

Seriously, the butter. Icelanders spread it on anything from toast to seaweed.

Some say it’s so good because of the happy cows who feed on grass on enchanted green pastures (makes sense). It could be that the use of growth hormones, steroids, and antibiotics —rampant in U.S. dairy production— is strictly banned in Iceland.

Either way, the butter gives even France a run for it’s money. The result is a strong bakery and pastry culture, heavily influenced by the Danish who settled there.

Icelandic favorites include dense, chewy rye breads, traditionally baked in dug out holes near the many geothermal hot springs across the country, and sweet pastries like snúður, a cinnamon roll, and kleina, a twisted doughnut. Icelanders aren’t above a fart joke, either — the bread is nicknamed ‘Icelandic thunder bread’ for good reason. When hitting the road, swing by Bernhöftsbakarí, for a pastry or sandwich bread to take on your way.

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Though European items are now seen throughout Iceland, Bernhöftsbakarí still offers a slew of traditional Icelandic sweets and breads, often featuring forest berries and various spelt and rye flours. (Photo by Anna Goren).

Hot Dogs

In a city where fish and chips costs $20, it makes sense that the most famous hot dog stand in Reykjavik, boldly named ‘The Best Dogs in Town’, always has a line out the door. At around $2.50 per dog, it is about the cheapest, best food in Iceland.

What first appears to be another depressing symbol of globalization is actually a deep source of national pride. Though a photo at the register proudly displays Bill Clinton eating one with only mustard during a presidential visit,  hot dogs ‘Icelandic-style’ with the lamb meat (rather than beef or pork), are usually topped with mayonnaise, mustard, and both raw and fried onions.

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Icelandic sheep are a breed that have been isolated since the Viking Age for their water-repellent wool, and distinctly flavored meat. With acres of grazing land, lamb remains a main food source for the country, and is often served in sausages or smoked. (Photo by Molly Goren).

Be warned: eating on an island isn’t cheap, and Iceland, with its harsh climate and limited agricultural offerings, is no exception.

But with a mystical landscape, friendly people, 24-hour dawn, public geothermal pools and Viking ghosts, it’s definitely worth the visit.

Skál!

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