Embarking on a culinary journey to explore the flavors of Icelandic cuisine brings to light various traditional ingredients and dishes that have graced plates for centuries. As a vegan enthusiast, it might seem challenging to find a way to modify these traditional recipes to suit your dietary preferences. However, with some creativity and willingness to experiment, it’s entirely possible to indulge in the deliciousness of Icelandic gastronomy while maintaining a vegan lifestyle. This in-depth guide focuses on uncovering various vegan-friendly Icelandic ingredients, substitutes, recipes, beverages, and more, allowing you to experience Icelandic culinary traditions without compromising your dietary choices.
Traditional Icelandic Ingredients
One of the core ingredients in traditional Icelandic cuisine is root vegetables, which are well-suited to the harsh climate of the region. Potatoes, turnips, and carrots are commonly grown and utilized in many dishes, making them a staple for Icelandic vegan recipes. These root vegetables are often incorporated into soups, stews, and salads, providing a hearty base for many meals. Additionally, pickled vegetables, such as beets and cucumbers, are a popular way to preserve and enjoy the local produce throughout the year.
Iceland’s cold climate and volcanic soil make it ideal for growing barley, one of the few grains indigenous to the country. Barley has been cultivated in Iceland since the Viking Age and is known for its versatility in cooking. It can be ground into flour for bread or used whole in soups and salads. In a vegan Icelandic kitchen, barley serves as an excellent base for a variety of plant-based dishes. It is rich in nutrients like fiber, protein, and various vitamins and minerals, making it a healthy and sustainable choice for the vegan diet.
Legumes, specifically dried peas and beans, have been a traditional ingredient in Icelandic cuisine for centuries. These nutrient-dense foods are a great source of plant-based protein and are often used in soups or made into hummus or bean patties. Lentils and chickpeas are also growing in popularity in both traditional and modern Icelandic vegan dishes. These legumes are commonly used in soups, stews, and salads, providing a tasty and healthy option for vegan enthusiasts.
Seaweed and other sea vegetables are abundant in Icelandic waters and have been used in the local cuisine for generations. Kelp, dulse, and sea lettuce are some of the most-used sea vegetables, which are a rich source of minerals, vitamins, and essential amino acids. They can be harvested from the wild or cultivated in sustainable farms along Iceland’s rocky coastlines. In vegan dishes, they are often used to season and flavor meals, including salads, soups, and seaweed-based snacks.
Native Herbs and Plants
The Icelandic landscape is home to a variety of native herbs and plants which contribute distinct flavors to vegan dishes. Wild thyme, birch leaves, and angelica are examples of commonly used local herbs that can be either dried or used fresh in recipes. Icelandic moss serves as a thickening agent in dishes and is also valued for its medicinal properties. The rich and unique array of flavors offered by these Icelandic herbs allows vegan cooks and enthusiasts to experiment with traditional recipes while maintaining an eco-friendly, plant-based lifestyle.
Vegan Substitutes for Icelandic Favorites
Traditional Icelandic Vegan Cuisine
While traditional Icelandic cuisine is known for its heavy reliance on fish, dairy, and meat, it is possible for vegan enthusiasts to recreate authentic Icelandic vegan dishes using creative substitutes. These alternatives can capture the flavors and textures of Icelandic cuisine without using animal-derived ingredients, making it easier for vegan enthusiasts to enjoy and explore authentic Icelandic fare.
One popular Icelandic dish is Plokkfiskur, a warming fish stew typically made with haddock, potatoes, and onions in a creamy white sauce. To make a vegan version of this dish, one can replace the fish with a flavorful combination of mushrooms and heart of palm, which mimics the flaky and tender texture of fish. The creamy sauce can be created using plant-based milk, nutritional yeast, and vegan butter, along with the traditional seasonings of white pepper and fresh dill.
Another Icelandic favorite is the hearty lamb soup known as Kjötsúpa. This dish typically includes root vegetables, such as carrots, rutabaga, and potatoes, along with tender chunks of lamb meat. To create a vegan version of Kjötsúpa, one can replace the lamb with plant-based alternatives such as seitan or tempeh, both of which offer a meaty texture and can easily absorb the flavors of the soup. The traditional meat-based broth can be substituted with a rich vegetable broth, giving the dish a satisfying depth of flavor without the use of animal products.
Icelandic Dairy Alternatives
Icelandic cuisine also features a variety of unique dairy-based dishes, such as Skyr, a thick yogurt-like dairy product, and Súrmjólk, a cultured milk similar to buttermilk or kefir. Vegans can find plant-based alternatives for these ingredients in soy, almond, or coconut yogurt, as well as vegan kefir or cultured plant milk. These ingredients can be used in recipes such as vegan Skyr with berries and granola, or incorporated into baking recipes to provide a touch of Icelandic-inspired tanginess and creaminess.
Rye bread, or rugbrauð, is another staple in Icelandic cuisine and is often enjoyed with smoked fish, pâtés, and cheese. To maintain a vegan approach to this cherished Icelandic food, one can opt for plant-based spreads, such as vegetable-based pâtés, cashew cheese, or smoked carrot “lox” as a substitute for smoked fish. These alternatives maintain the familiar flavors and textures of traditional Icelandic dishes while remaining entirely plant-based.
Icelandic desserts often feature a combination of berries, cream, and pastry, such as the cherished Icelandic berry tart, Skúffukaka, and Pönnukökur, thin pancakes served with whipped cream and fruit preserves. To make these desserts vegan, dairy-based ingredients can be replaced with plant-based alternatives like coconut cream and vegan puff pastry, while eggs can be substituted with flax or chia seeds, aquafaba, or store-bought egg alternatives. With these substitutions, vegan enthusiasts can enjoy the flavors and textures of traditional Icelandic desserts while adhering to a plant-based diet.
Starters: Vegan Icelandic Soups and Salads
Icelandic Vegan Soups
Continuing the exploration of Icelandic vegan dishes offers an exciting and flavorful opportunity for those looking to expand their culinary horizons. One key aspect of Icelandic cuisine to master is their delectable soups, which can easily be adapted to suit vegan preferences. Traditional Icelandic soup recipes often involve root vegetables, herbs, and seasonings that combine to create a savory and satisfying meal.
For instance, Kjötsúpa, a traditional Icelandic lamb soup, can be transformed into a vegan delight by substituting the lamb with tofu or tempeh and replacing the meat broth with vegetable broth. The result is a hearty and comforting dish packed with potatoes, carrots, onions, and a touch of thyme for added flavor.
Another delicious Icelandic soup to try is Pottasúpa, a potato soup known for its creamy texture and rich flavor. Vegans can substitute the traditional dairy ingredients with almond milk or coconut milk, and use vegetable broth instead of chicken broth. Adding an assortment of vegetables, such as leeks, celery, and carrots, bolsters the nutritional value and enhances the natural flavors of the potatoes. Garnishing the Pottasúpa with fresh chives and a dollop of vegan sour cream provides a final touch to this comforting soup.
Icelandic Vegan Salads
In addition to soups, Icelandic cuisine also offers a variety of fresh and healthy salads that can easily be adapted to fit a vegan diet.
One example is the Fiskisalat, which traditionally contains fish but can easily be modified by using marinated tofu or grilled tempeh as a substitute. The salad base is made from a mixture of leafy greens, tomatoes, cucumber, and red onion, creating a vibrant and refreshing dish. To enhance the flavor, a tangy mustard-dill dressing can be made by combining dijon mustard, apple cider vinegar, olive oil, and fresh dill.
Another Icelandic salad worth trying is the Rauðkálssalat, a red cabbage salad that combines the sweet and tangy flavors of the country’s popular pickled vegetables. To make this vegan dish, simply shred a head of red cabbage and combine with grated carrots, thinly sliced red onion, and chopped fresh dill. A dressing made from apple cider vinegar, sugar, and a pinch of salt and pepper can be drizzled over the top for a tangy kick. This vibrant and crunchy salad pairs well with other vegan Icelandic dishes or can be enjoyed as a light and nutritious meal on its own.
Kúskús og Grænmetissalat
Lastly, a simple yet tasty vegan Icelandic salad option is the Kúskús og Grænmetissalat, a couscous and vegetable salad that is brimming with flavor and nutrients. Begin by cooking a batch of whole-grain couscous and setting it aside to cool. Next, sauté a combination of your favorite vegetables, such as bell peppers, zucchini, and red onion, in olive oil and your preferred seasonings. Combine these warm vegetables with the cooled couscous, and toss with a dressing made from lemon juice, olive oil, and garlic. This dish can be served warm or chilled, making it a versatile and satisfying option for vegan Icelandic cuisine enthusiasts.
Main Courses: Vegan Icelandic Hearty Meals
Moving beyond salads, a popular Icelandic dish that can be adapted for a vegan diet is Plokkfiskur, which traditionally includes fish, potatoes, and onions. To create a vegan version, you can use a plant-based fish substitute, or you can simply focus on the potatoes and onions as the main ingredients. For an authentic Icelandic touch, cook the vegetables in dairy-free margarine and traditional Icelandic herbs, such as arctic thyme and angelica. By replacing the fish with vegan alternatives or choosing to omit it altogether, Plokkfiskur remains true to its original flavors and textures while catering to a plant-based diet.
Another classic Icelandic dish is Kjötsúpa, a hearty lamb and vegetable soup. While meat may be the primary ingredient, vegan enthusiasts can still enjoy this Icelandic staple by substituting the lamb for protein-rich legumes such as lentils or chickpeas. In addition, swapping the traditional meat-based broth for a savory vegetable stock will help maintain the rich and flavorful base characteristic of Kjötsúpa. Adding plenty of vegetables, such as potatoes, carrots, and cabbage, not only makes this soup more nutritious but also imparts a unique Icelandic charm.
Rúgbrauð, a traditional Icelandic rye bread, is another delightfully hearty and vegan-friendly main course. This dark, dense bread can be baked at home using simple ingredients such as rye flour, sugar, salt, and baking soda. Typically steamed in a pot rather than baked, the bread obtains a unique texture and flavor that pairs wonderfully with vegan spreads, like dairy-free butter or hummus. Rúgbrauð is not only versatile, but also makes for a perfect addition to any vegan Icelandic meal.
One Icelandic vegan dish that showcases the nation’s love for potatoes is the vegan version of Fiskibollur – fish balls. Combining mashed potatoes with seaweed, such as dulse or nori, creates a fishy flavor reminiscent of the traditional dish. Additional ingredients like onion, garlic, and breadcrumbs can be added for extra flavor and texture. Rolled into balls and baked or fried, these vegan Fiskibollur offer a unique and delicious taste of Icelandic cuisine.
Skonsur, Icelandic pancakes, provide the perfect main course for breakfast or brunch enthusiasts. The traditional recipe starts by combining flour, sugar, salt, and baking powder in a large bowl. To create a vegan-friendly mixture, substitute the traditional milk and eggs for a plant-based alternative. Soy milk, almond milk, or even Icelandic oat milk create a rich batter that can be poured onto a griddle and cooked until golden brown. For an added touch, serve these pancakes with a dollop of dairy-free yogurt, fresh berries, or drizzled with aquafaba-based Icelandic-style whipped cream. These vegan Skonsur will allow you to enjoy a quintessential Icelandic dining experience, while staying true to your plant-based lifestyle.
Desserts: Vegan Icelandic Sweets and Treats
Vegan Skyr Cake
Continuing with the theme of delectable Icelandic cuisine, another popular dessert is the Skyr cake, which can easily be transformed into a vegan delight using plant-based Skyr alternatives like almond or coconut yogurt. This scrumptious and refreshing cake features a crunchy nut-based crust and is filled with a creamy, tart yogurt Skyr mixture. To maximize the authenticity of this vegan treat, incorporate Icelandic berries such as bilberries or crowberries, which can be found in most forests and tundras throughout the country. Add a touch of Icelandic moss for a hint of traditional flavor, and you have a mouth-watering vegan dessert that will transport your taste buds straight to the Land of Fire and Ice.
Enjoy a delightful Icelandic vegan twist on a classic dessert with Pönnukökur, a soft and deliciously sweet vegan Icelandic pancake. These pancakes are similar to crepes but are slightly thicker and fluffier. They can be made vegan by substituting cow’s milk with oat milk and using egg alternatives such as ground flaxseed mixed with water. Pönnukökur are traditionally served with sugar and a dollop of whipped cream or folded with fruit jam. For a vegan alternative, consider using sweetened soy or coconut whipped cream and your favorite fruit preserves, like rhubarb or blueberries.
For a light, fluffy, and comforting treat, vegan Kleinur are Icelandic doughnuts sure to satisfy your sweet tooth. These delightful pastries are traditionally made from a dough of flour, sugar, baking powder, and milk, which can easily be replaced with plant-based ingredients. Consider using oat milk, vegan butter, and a blend of all-purpose and whole wheat flour for an extra wholesome bite. Kleinur are twisted into a unique, knot-like shape before being deep-fried in vegetable oil, resulting in a crispy, golden brown exterior and a soft, pillowy center. Serve them dusted with powdered sugar and enjoy with a cup of hot Icelandic coffee.
A heartwarming favorite among Icelandic desserts, the Hjónabandssaela, or “happy marriage cake,” is a crumbly, buttery oatmeal and rhubarb treat. This traditional pastry can easily be made vegan by swapping out the butter for a plant-based alternative, such as Earth Balance or coconut oil. The base and crumble topping of the cake are made from a mixture of rolled oats, flour, sugar, and the plant-based butter of your choice. A thick, sweet layer of rhubarb jam is placed between the two layers before baking, resulting in a satisfyingly tart and sweet dessert perfect for sharing with loved ones.
Icelandic Chocolate Balls
If you’re seeking a simple yet delightful sweet treat, Icelandic Chocolate Balls are a fun and easy vegan dessert. These scrumptious balls are made with crushed cookies, cocoa powder, sugar, and plant-based butter, combined with a touch of coffee for a rich, satisfying flavor. The mixture is then rolled into bite-sized balls and coated with shredded coconut, chocolate sprinkles, or powdered sugar. The best part about these sweet treats is that they require no baking, making them a quick and convenient dessert option perfect for any vegan enthusiast or hobbyist looking to delve into Icelandic vegan dishes!
Beverages: Alcoholic and Non-alcoholic Icelandic Drinks
One of the most popular and iconic Icelandic alcoholic beverages is Brennivín, also known as “Black Death.” This potent schnapps is made from fermented potato mash and flavored with caraway seeds, giving it a unique herbal taste. Although traditionally consumed during the mid-winter feast of Þorrablót, Brennivín has become a favored choice for both tourists and locals. Vegans can enjoy this beverage as it is purely plant-based and contains no animal byproducts. For an authentic taste of Icelandic culture, pair Brennivín with vegan dishes such as the traditional Icelandic beet salad or rye bread, or even with the delicious Icelandic Chocolate Balls mentioned earlier.
Another famous Icelandic alcoholic drink is Einstök, a popular craft beer produced in the fishing town of Akureyri and made using pure glacial water from Hlíðarfjall Mountain. Einstök offers a range of vegan-friendly beers that are popular among enthusiasts and hobbyists interested in Icelandic vegan dishes. Some of their notable brews include the Toasted Porter, which pairs well with robust, hearty dishes such as vegan mushroom stews, and the Arctic Pale Ale, which is a refreshing accompaniment to lighter dishes like Icelandic cucumber salad or grilled vegetable skewers.
Kvöldsól, a non-alcoholic Icelandic tea, is another delicious vegan-friendly beverage option to explore. Kvöldsól is made from a blend of handpicked Icelandic herbs, including birch leaves, Arctic thyme, and angelica, which are known for their soothing and calming properties. This herbal tea has a subtle, earthy flavor, making it a perfect pairing for a variety of Icelandic vegan dishes, from the filling Icelandic barleyotto (barley risotto) to the delicate and fragrant Icelandic rhubarb soup served as a dessert.
Mýrargrund is a sweet non-alcoholic Icelandic beverage that can be enjoyed by vegans. Similar to a milkshake, Mýrargrund is made from a blend of fresh blueberries, birch syrup, and water, with a touch of Icelandic yogurt known as skyr. To make a vegan version, replace the skyr with a dairy-free alternative like coconut yogurt or almond milk. This delicious and satisfying drink is often served as an afternoon snack or dessert and can be accompanied by vegan Icelandic pancakes or kleinur (Icelandic twisted doughnuts).
An essential aspect of Icelandic culture, coffee plays a significant role in the country’s cuisine, with several dairy-free and vegan-friendly options available for enthusiasts. Many cafes offer plant-based milk substitutes such as oat milk, almond milk, and soy milk for a delightful vegan experience. Pair a comforting cup of coffee with a vegan Icelandic treat, like a warm slice of Vínarterta (Icelandic fruitcake), to immerse yourself in the enjoyable flavors of Icelandic vegan dining.
Icelandic Vegan Dining and Shopping Tips
Initially, discovering vegan dishes in the picturesque landscapes of Iceland might appear challenging. However, the growing popularity of veganism in the region has led to an impressive range of options to satiate your culinary desires. Reykjavik, the capital city, has emerged as a hub for vegan-friendly restaurants and eateries, catering to every palate.
For instance, the renowned Icelandic chain, Glo, offers vegan and vegetarian dishes made with locally-sourced, organic ingredients. Kaffi Vinyl is another Reykjavik hotspot, a fully vegan cafe and record store that serves a delectable variety of sandwiches, soups, salads, and even vegan pizzas. In addition, the Omnom Chocolate Factory – a celebrated Icelandic chocolatier – boasts a variety of vegan-friendly chocolate bars, available at numerous shops across the country.
When dining out, communicating with the staff about your dietary preferences is crucial to ensuring a pleasant vegan dining experience. It’s important to note that traditional Icelandic cuisine may include dairy, fish, or meat products, so it’s essential to research and ask for recommendations. A popular Icelandic food, Pylsur, is a type of hot dog that can be made with vegan ingredients like seitan or soy. Additionally, try asking the staff for simple vegan versions of traditional dishes such as rye bread with hummus instead of butter, or Icelandic potato salad made with vegan mayo.
In terms of grocery shopping, Iceland’s supermarkets and grocery stores have significantly expanded their vegan options in recent years. Supermarkets like Bonus, Kronan, and Netto often stock a range of plant-based products, including tofu, non-dairy milk, and a variety of imitation meat products. It’s always an excellent option to have some groceries on hand, especially if you plan to explore rural areas of the country where vegan dining options might be fewer.
While it may not be as common as in other countries, Iceland is also home to some fantastic plant-based food markets and specialty stores. One notable example is Heilsuhusid, which operates multiple locations throughout the country and offers a selection of organic and vegan products. Mao Bao, another specialty store, offers a range of vegan Asian dishes in a samosa-style format made from fresh Icelandic vegetables.
Aside from dining and shopping, it’s essential to experience Iceland’s rich culinary culture in an ethical and sustainable manner. For instance, you can visit working farms and greenhouses, many of which offer tours where you can learn about sustainable practices and sample fresh, local produce. Engaging with local food traditions offers an opportunity to connect with the national culture while still adhering to your own dietary preferences. Overall, by exploring the variety of vegan-friendly options and seeking out local recommendations and experiences, you can enjoy the best of Icelandic vegan dining.
Through adapting traditional Icelandic dishes and exploring indigenous ingredients compatible with a vegan diet, it’s clear that vegan enthusiasts can embrace the flavors Iceland has to offer without sacrificing their dietary principles. As described in this guide, embracing vegan substitutes, discovering new recipes, and gaining knowledge about Icelandic culinary culture allows you to truly appreciate the unique tastes and textures this cuisine has in store. So, go ahead and dive into the world of Icelandic vegan dishes, creating delectable meals to enjoy at home, or experiencing vibrant vegan dining and shopping opportunities in the captivating land of fire and ice.