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The Icelandic 'Yule Lads' herald Christmas at the northern Dimmuborgir. Each of the thirteen troll brothers has a signature trade, most often involving traditional Christmas food. Here is "Sausage swiper", lighting up the BBQ. Photo by Egill Bjarnason.

Sweets, Meats, and Fermented Fish Icelanders Eat for Christmas

Christmas hold some very special traditions in Iceland and, unsurprisingly, many of them revolve around food. Here are a few of the main delicacies one can expect to eat over the holidays - Icelandic style.

Note on Christmas opening hours: Icelanders celebrate Christmas on the eve of 24 December. Most restaurants are closed that evening -- and the following day -- but in Reykjavík a number of high-end places remains open. Book early and click here for details.

Sweets

Most Icelanders are huge fans of Liquorice in all of its diverse forms all year round. However, during the holidays one can expect to see Licorice tops or lakkrís toppar, a meringue cookie with chocolate chips and chocolate-covered licorice. Keep in mind, Icelandic licorice has a strong anise flavor that tends to be much saltier than licorice from North America.  

Rice pudding or möndlu grautur is another typical holiday treat. This rice porridge is topped with whipped cream and chopped almonds. Sometimes it is eaten as breakfast and sometimes as a dessert around the holidays. There is even a game in which a single whole almond is placed in the pot and once the pudding is dolled out, everyone guesses who has the whole almond.

Sarah Bernhardt cookies are a popular favorite, available in cafes year-round. Named after the French stage actress who starred in some of the most popular French plays of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these multilayered cookies have an almond macaroon base that is topped with chocolate filling and then covered in melted chocolate.

Don’t forget the Layer Cake or Lagkaka which has layers of gingerbread with vanilla cream, or its sister cake, the Randalina which has layers of yellow cake with rhubarb jam.

Meats

Smoked lamb or hangikjöt is traditionally served on Christmas Eve. It is sometimes smoked using sheep dung, then boiled and eaten cold with a hot béchamel style sauce with peas and potatoes. The hangikjöt is hard to find at restaurant menus but as an alternative try a leg of lamb; another popular festive dish.

Ptarmigan or rjúpa is a type of grouse that changes its color from brown to white in winter. It is usually boiled, then fried, and served with red cabbage, potatoes, and gravy. These days, the ptarmigan is a protected bird with a limited quota that can be hunted per year. The dish is not sold commercially.

Fermented Fish

Fermented skate or kæst skata is perhaps the most perplexing of all traditional Icelandic Christmas dishes. Skates are closely related to rays and both have skin similar to sharks. In this dish, the skate has a very strong smell and taste as it is fermented - perhaps the main reason why it is typically consumed along with strong liquor. More popular among older generations, the dish is usually eaten on the 23rd of December, also known as St. Thorlákurs day after Thorlákur, the Icelandic saint who died on this date in the 12th century.

Marinated Herring or síld is a pickled or marinated herring that is also popular in other Nordic countries. This Icelandic Christmas dish is usually consumed on a slice of rye bread or pumpernickel bread with an assortment of sauces and garnishes. It is available in most supermarkets.

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