Iceland is known internationally for many things: its breathtaking scenery, its abundant geothermal energy, the Aurora Borealis... But I can bet you've never heard of Icelandic food. The cuisine of Iceland evolved under unique environmental conditions; Iceland sits just under the Arctic Circle and only gets enough sunlight to grow food during the summer. Much of the country is covered in lava, too, which makes growing food hard.

But despite the less than favorable conditions for agriculture, Icelanders have managed to develop a complex cuisine with interesting foods you must try if you have the chance. Here's a list of my favorite Icelandic foods, accumulated over the course of my semester abroad in Reykjavík.

1. Kleinur

enjoying an Icelandic doughnut and hot chocolate aboard the Gentle Giants whale watch boat

Anosmia on Flickr

Mmm, fried food. Kleinur (singular kleina) are my favorite Icelandic treat. They're colloquially known as the Icelandic donut: slightly sweet deep fried bread twisted into a diamond-shaped knot. They taste lovely dipped in coffee or tea. If you're not planning a trip to Iceland any time soon, you can make them at home with this recipe

2. Skyr

chocolate, cappuccino, espresso, milk, coffee
Elizabeth Olson

Skyr is my other favorite Icelandic treat. It's a thick dairy product that is technically cheese but is marketed as yogurt. You can get little cups of skyr almost anywhere that sells food and drinks (i.e. gas stations, convenience stores, my school's bookstore), and they come with a foldable spoon so you can eat it on the go. Skyr has the texture of greek yogurt but is even thicker and creamier. 

You can buy skyr in the USA from brands like Siggi's or Smári (pronounced smow-ree). It costs a bit more than store-brand yogurt but I promise it's worth it.

3. Hákarl

This is Hákarl, fermented Greenland shark. One of the strangest things I’ve ever eaten, it’s buried in the sand and then hung to dry in open air for months because it’s poisonous when fresh. The heavy smell and taste of ammonia is certainly eye opening.

thewronski on Flickr

Okay, you don't actually have to try this, but you should know that it exists. Hákarl is a traditional Icelandic food made from... Wait for it... Rotten shark. It was historically eaten during the midwinter festival of Þorrablót, but nowadays you can buy it in supermarkets. One article I read likened the experience of hákarl to "eating the gangrenous, blackened toes of a long-dead polar explorer which have been defrosted and left behind a radiator for a few days."

3. Brennivín

Black Death for sale at the airport

Anosmia on Flickr

Ah, Brennivín. The name translates literally to "burning wine" and is sometimes called The Black Death. It's a traditional Icelandic spirit with an alcohol content similar to vodka, and it's only made by one distillery in Iceland. Cafes in Iceland that serve hákarl will often offer a shot of brennivín to cleanse your palate of rotten shark. 

4. Icelandic Rye Bread (Rúgbrauð)

sashimi, rice, seafood, fish, sushi, smoked salmon, salmon
Elizabeth Olson
Icelandic rye bread is similar to other Nordic rye breads in that it's sweet and very dense. It is usually baked in a pot or, as Iceland is blessed with abundant geothermal activity, in a vessel buried near a hot spring, in which case it is called hverabrauð ("hot spring bread"). Rúgbrauð goes well with butter, jam, ham and cheese, tuna fish—anything you can think of. Bonus points if you try it with cream cheese and Icelandic smoked salmon.

5. Laufabrauð

Laufabrauð is a deep-fried wafer-like treat that Icelanders eat around Christmastime. It translates to "leaf bread," named for the pretty designs carved into it with a laufabrauðsjárn (leaf bread iron). You most likely will not find it for purchase in the USA, but you can make it easily at home with this recipe.

6. Waffles with Rhubarb Jam

waffle on

various brennemans on Flickr

If there's one thing I learned while in Iceland, it's that Icelanders love waffles. When I expressed my excitement at finding a waffle iron in my apartment in Reykjavík to one of my Icelandic friends, he responded with "of course, every household has one!" The waffles themselves are nothing special, but the Icelandic way requires eating them with rhubarb jam and whipped cream. If you've got a waffle iron I highly recommend trying this recipe.

7. Ice Cream

dairy product, chocolate, sweet, cake, cream
Elizabeth Olson

Did you know ice cream was invented in Iceland? Just kidding. That's a lie. Ice cream is not a strictly Icelandic food, but Icelanders sure do know how to make some damn good ice cream. Check this list of the best ice cream places in Reykjavík for your next visit.