Life Is Salt Fish


Life Is Salt Fish

Watch this audio slideshow on how to prepare Icelandic saltfiskur, dried and salted fish, which used to be Iceland’s most valuable export product. Ever since the 14th century, fishing has been of great importance to the country’s economy. Hence the phrase: “Lífid er saltfiskur” or “Life is salt fish.”

Photos and narration by Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir [email protected].

Click here to download the audio slideshow.


“Lífid er saltfiskur” or “Life is salt fish” is a common Icelandic phrase, referring to fish being Iceland’s most valuable export product since the 14th century (

After World War II, most of the fish export was frozen, but in the 500 years prior, drying or salting fish was the conventional preservation method.

While drying fish and making hardfiskur is an Icelandic heritage, Icelanders learned the method of salting in addition to drying from Basque fishermen.

Salting became economically feasible during the 17th century, when cheap salt from southern Europe became available to the maritime nations of northern Europe (

While Icelandic saltfiskur is, in fact, the same as Spanish bacalao, Icelanders have their own version of saltfiskur. Traditional Icelandic salt fish recipes are much simpler than those cooked up by their Spanish brethren.

Traditionally, salt fish was dried only by the wind and the sun, hanging on wooden scaffolding or lying on clean cliffs or rocks near the seaside. Today, it is usually dried indoors with the aid of electric heaters.

However, old drying methods are still being practiced, if only for demonstration purposes. Last summer, fish was dried and salted at Árbaejarsafn, Reykjavík City Museum, and then sold at an outdoor market in the fall.

Árbaejarsafn is a living museum, where visitors can familiarize themselves with Icelandic traditions and the living conditions of different time periods as buildings have been relocated to the museum site and preserved with the original inventory.

Back to salt fish. In a dried state, the fish can be preserved for months on end. Before it is cooked, it must soak in water for 48 hours. After 24 hours, change the water to minimize the salty taste.

Then boil some water and don’t add any salt. Put the salt fish fillets into the boiling water and lower the heat. Let it boil for 15 to 20 minutes.

Once the fish has become soft, take it out of the water and remove the bones and skin. Traditionally, Icelandic saltfiskur is simply eaten boiled with boiled potatoes and yellow turnips, perhaps complemented with hamsatólg, melted sheep fat, and with rúgbraud, dark rye bread, on the side.

However, saltfiskur can also be enjoyed in other ways, for example with tomatoes, peppers and olives, Mediterranean style.

Here is a simple and tasty recipe:

After boiling and cleaning the fish, cut it into small pieces and put it into an oven-tight tray. Boil some potatoes and mash them. Then fry some onions and bacon and put everything into the tray.

Pour one or two cups light cream into the tray and mash everything together. Then grate some cheese and sprinkle it on top of the mixture. Cook in the oven at 200°C (392°F) for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the cheese has turned golden brown.

Serve with fresh tomatoes or a green salad and season as you please.

Among companies that produce salt fish in Iceland is Ektafiskur in Hauganes, north Iceland, which sells both dried salt fish and vacuum-packed fish, which has already been soaked in water and is ready for consumption. The company also sells some ready-made salt fish dishes. A large portion of Ektafiskur’s products are exported to Spain.

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