Hákarl is an Icelandic fermented food delicacy made from the Greenland shark, which is indigenous to the waters of Iceland. It is traditionally prepared by beheading and gutting the shark and then burying the carcass in a shallow pit covered with sand. The carcass is left to ferment for six to twelve weeks. The flesh is then cut into strips and hung to dry for four to five months.
My first question upon learning of this rotten food was, “Why not eat the shark fresh?” Here in North America we guard against eating rotten meat, yet our neighbors in latitude across the ocean go to great lengths to prepare a rotten delicacy.
Greenland sharks do not have urinary tracts and must secret their urine from their skin. As a result the Greenland shark is actually poisonous when fresh due to the high content of urea and trimethylamine oxide in its flesh. By allowing the shark to decay and its flesh to dry in the wind, the acid is removed from the flesh, or so they say.
Hákarl has quite a hardcore reputation in the culinary world. Chef Anthony Bourdain known for traveling to exotic locales and eating the relatively unheard of has described Hákarl as “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he has ever eaten. This same delicacy made celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey vomit on TV when challenged to it eat.
My husband I enjoy traveling and tasting local cuisine is a big part of this experience. We have tasted hoo hoo grubs in New Zealand prepared three different ways, maktak in the Arctic, and souse in the southern United States.
Last summer we traveled to Iceland. We had read about Hákarl extensively, but when we saw the cost in most restaurants tasting it was eliminated from our to do list. We are adventurous, but not stupid. Who would pay 40 Euros for a plate of rotten fish that they might not be able to keep down?
One day we were shopping at the local grocery store which had every European delicacy imaginable when a pile of vacuumed sealed white hunks of meat caught my eye. I quickly motioned to my husband. “Look! Can it be Hákarl?” A local Icelandic woman overheard our inquiry and quickly confirmed that this was indeed the dreaded delicacy. I asked her if she had tried it. She responded, ” Of course, you need to try it.”
We knew this was not an opportunity to pass up. We purchased a bottle of Brennivin, the local Schnapps as a mandatory chaser and anxiously returned to our apartment.
Upon opening the package the room immediately filled with the ammonia smell about which we had read so much. I attempted to ignore it and cut the shark up into tiny cubes resembling cheese like I had seen in pictures in countless tourist publications.
I looked at my husband and said, ” I love you, but you are trying it first.” He responded, “Oh no you don’t. We taste together.”
We each took the smallest of morsels and put it in our mouths. I took one bite and my whole being was filled with the most vile, non-palatable taste I have experienced. We both decided that swallowing it would be a mistake. Hákarl could not possibly be good for you or ever leave your digestive tract.
You cannot get Hákarl anywhere but Iceland. I have tasted it and will never taste it again. I cannot imagine that it would taste good anywhere. That being said it is a food worth flying for. It is a flavour you will never ever forget. Brennivin, on the other hand, would taste great anywhere. You cannot get it anywhere, but Iceland. We would fly to Iceland for Brennivin in a heartbeat