Eat like an Icelander

The Arctic country's cuisine helps explains why they live long, happy lives.

Our interest in Icelandic cooking isn’t just related to the island-nation’s recent popularity as a travel destination. We know that a country’s cuisine is an underpinning of its culture and quality of life; and since Iceland is the third happiest country in the world and ranks sixth for life expectancy, what they eat must have something to do with it. “Maintaining good health is not something that Icelanders consider as an obligation,” explains author and Icelandic food expert Jody Eddy. “[Staying healthy] is a part of their everyday lives and is incorporated into their routine without thinking about it.” And the key to maintaining this balanced, happy lifestyle has everything to do with what Icelanders eat and drink.

While chefs from Copenhagen to Reykjavik are reimagining Nordic food with birch wood and edible moss, the diet of everyday Icelanders is also derived from the rugged landscape and pristine waters. The tiny island provides its population a natural bounty.


The country has always subsisted on fish pulled from the waters that flow in and around it, so it’s no surprise that Iceland has one the highest per capita fish consumption in the world. Types like cod and haddock are eaten fresh while salmon is cured with dill (gravlax). Dried cod jerky (harðfiskur) and fermented shark (kæstur hákarl) are traditional, if pungent, examples of preserved seafood. Many make a habit of taking cod liver oil supplements for their high levels of vitamins A and D and omega-3s.


Skyr, originally a byproduct of preservation, is a creamy cheese similar to Greek yogurt that contains 17g of protein per 5 oz. serving. Made from the milk of grass-fed cows, skyr is a staple found in every fridge in Iceland and one of a handful of items that is becoming widespread in the U.S., such as Smari, which was started by an Icelander named Smári Ásmundsson who moved to California. His friend, Chef Gunnar Gíslason of restaurant Dill in Reykjavik and Agern in NYC’s Grand Central Station, likes to top his skyr with cream and fresh crowberries, a type of cold-climate berry. Adds Eddy, “Skyr is also a must in savory recipes such as celeriac slaw or even as a marinade for pork or lamb.”


Yellow butter, made from hormone-free milk sourced from grass-fed cows, is consumed liberally in Iceland, at nearly 13 pounds per person annually. That this doesn’t lead to a clogged artery epidemic is substantiated by Swedish research that found higher consumption of high-fat milk, butter and cream was associated with a lower rate of obesity over a 12-year span. Salted butter is spread on harðfiskur—dried cod jerky—for a snack, or on thin slices of steamed brown bread for open-faced smørrebrød sandwiches. A favorite dish at lunch or dinner, the buttered bread is topped with fish or shrimp, lightly pickled vegetables, and herbs.


Most innovations in Icelandic cooking are born from centuries of tempering the harsh environment with its natural resources. And thin, crepe-like pönnukökur pancakes have stood the test of time. Given as a wedding gift or passed between generations, every home has a seasoned pancake pan. The pan’s shallow, sloping sides is key for shaping the pancakes that are then dusted with powdered sugar and served with whipped cream and jam.