Iceland is renowned as a place to have daring adventures by experiencing some of the world’s most authentic marvels. From sweeping Highland mountains to erupting volcanoes and geothermal hot springs to mesmerizing ice caves. Naturally, Iceland’s uniqueness extends to food. As an island country, fishing is an important part of our cuisine and exports. Icelanders mainly eat fresh fish but also our special dried fish. Icelandic dry fish is a traditional food that is popular among locals and is often called fish jerky. However, the Icelandic name for these tasty dried fish snacks is harðfiskur.

Icelandic dried fish with butter


Icelandic Dry Fish

When you visit Iceland, make sure you try this local food. After you get past the strong fish smell, you will be surprised by the delicious flavor. Let’s learn more about how this fascinating food is made, traditional customs, and how to enjoy it.

A Brief Fishing History 

For centuries in early Iceland, the harsh environment made resources very scarce and limited our diet. Fortunately, access to the abundant North Atlantic Ocean provided an opportunity to fish.  Icelandic fishing has been a lifeline for this island nation and functions as both a main food source and an export product. Fish exports have been recorded as far back as the 12th century. Fishing will always be an integral part of Icelandic culture and history.

So naturally, in the present-day, fisheries are still one of the main sources of income for the Icelandic economy. Iceland’s fisheries have square footage that is seven times the size of Iceland. The fishery zone is 760,000 square kilometers or 293,437 square miles.

Before the start of the 19th century, grain was difficult to access. It had to be imported from other countries like Denmark, which made it too costly for most Icelanders. Any grain or flour they had was put in gruel and bread was a fleeting luxury. So instead of eating bread at meals, locals ate Icelandic dried fish with butter.

Icelandic Dried Fish with Butter 

Historically, Icelanders have eaten harðfiskur, which is a whole fish dried into long strips, with butter as a substitute for bread. But over time instead of being viewed as a necessity, dried fish with butter has become a popular snack. You may not believe this, but Icelandic dried fish with butter is absolutely delicious and makes it nicer to eat. The butter helps to soften the very dry meat and also complement its flavor.

Icelandic dried fish with butter

Locals also serve it at the beginning of the meal on a platter with bread, butter, and other meats. They treat it like a delicacy as well as popcorn. Especially the bite-sized pieces of dried fish called bitafiskur. However, you must chew very thoroughly before swallowing every time because it is still tough in texture.

Icelanders eat about 200 to 250 tons of dried fish that is made from 2.8 to 3 tons of fish. This is significantly high since it is eaten year-round and especially during the holidays.

A common time period to have dried fish and other traditional foods is at a festival called Þorrablót held during Þorri. Þorri is the fourth month of winter (mid-January through mid-February) according to the Icelandic calendar and means frost in Norse mythology.

Fish Jerky: A Traditional Icelandic Food

Dried fish is often called fish jerky because of its tough texture. Traditionally, the fish was cleaned, gutted, and deboned. Then finally hung up to dry for up to 6 weeks outside in the salty Icelandic air at fish drying farms. Now with technology the drying process only takes 36 to 48 hours. After the fish has sufficiently dried it is beaten with a meat mallet to make it edible.

The fish typically used are cod, haddock, or catfish. Haddock and cod have a milder flavor. Catfish has the strongest smell so prepare for the robust scent when you open a bag of dried catfish. Either one you try, just dig in with some butter and you won’t regret it. Fish jerky is an Icelandic food you just might get hooked on!

Icelandic dried fish process


Icelandic Dried Fish Snacks 

Fish jerky are healthy snacks that provide a great source of protein. These dried fish snacks contain 100g of protein, which is about 80 to 85% of the recommended daily protein intake. For example, fresh haddock has 17 to 19% protein content but when it is dried, this amount increases to 75 to 80% protein content. The Icelandic dried fish snack also has many nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids. Studies show consuming fish jerky can help minimize the risk of stroke and heart disease.

You can easily try these snacks by buying a bag of dried fish jerky in local Icelandic grocery stores. It will be an adventure for your nose and taste buds. You might really enjoy it or hate it but it will definitely be an experience to remember. You should even bring a bag of them as a souvenir for your friends. It will certainly leave a strong impression on everyone.

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