Hákarl: How Fermented Shark Became Iceland's National Dish

Fermented shark is hung up to dry
Fermented shark is hung up to dry | © Jedamus_Lichtbilder / Getty Images
Kieran Morris

Staff Writer

Hákarl, or fermented shark, is a phenomenon that has gone way beyond the confines of the austere Icelandic winter. In terms of flavour, it tends to be described with all the very worst words you can use for something edible. Yet the unusual dish continues to sell, with many tourists challenging themselves to try one of Iceland’s most unusual national dishes.

First: gut and behead a Greenland shark. Once you’ve got over the tricky part, dig yourself a small, fairly deep hole in the sandiest earth you can find, ideally close to the sea so that there’s enough salinity to draw moisture from the meat. Cut the fish, rinse off the slime and goo and pack tightly into your ditch before covering with sand and a mass of heavy, sturdy stones; a dozen or so should do. Leave it for around 12 weeks, until the shark has putrefied sufficiently, and then dig it up to hang. Don’t fret if it smells bad; after seven months of curing, it will smell a bit better.

Whether it’s ‘feet’, ‘stale cheese’, ‘urine’, ‘gym clothes’, ‘rotten eggs’ or a combination of all of the above, hákarl is a singular experience that most people describe as the worst thing ever to pass their lips. It is number one, or close to it, on every list of the world’s most disgusting foods, yet people want to eat it or see others try. A cursory YouTube search yields hundreds of reaction videos – from Gordon Ramsay and the late Anthony Bourdain to make-up bloggers – all with the familiar vomit-flavoured payoff. For better or worse, it’s as much a candidate for Iceland’s national dish as plokkfiskur (fish stew), puffin or skyr.

Blocks of putrefied shark meat are dry-cured on the path to becoming edible

But is it a fair representation of the nation’s cuisine? Well, of course not. Hákarl, in Reykjavik, is for tourists. It’s found in supermarkets and has a place at the traditional wintertime Þorrablót feast – but you’re more likely to find it at souvenir shops and market stalls. Stuck onto toothpicks and plated up for the most daring of visitors, the rank dice of conspicuously colourless meat are there to get a laugh from the local crowd; all they need to do for an afternoon show is watch from the bar as you spit, retch and curse.

As a result, however, Icelandic cuisine suffers from an image problem: namely, that Iceland is a culinary wasteland where the locals eat primitive, disgusting foods as a result of some strange connection with their Viking forebears. Magnus Nilsson, pioneering Swedish chef and author of The Nordic Cookbook, complained to the Evening Standard in 2015 that, “Television shows about the region naturally only feature the most extreme or striking dishes, like shark or whale… and people are put off.” Along with the rest of the Þorramatur platter (boiled sheep’s head, sour ram’s testicles, seal’s flippers and so on), hákarl, with its sheer unusualness, tars the rest of Icelandic cuisine with an unfortunate reputation.

Scandinavia has long battled to shake its reputation for fermented fish. Norway has its noxious rakfisk; Sweden has the especially fizzy surströmming; and just about every Nordic country has some version of lutefisk, made by soaking cod in caustic lye. But those nations have been able to show that there’s more to their national cuisine than some of its more unusual curios. Despite the raging success of New Nordic Cuisine, and how this has transformed the region’s culinary reputation across the world, Iceland remains the odd one out. It is still the only Scandinavian country not to have a Michelin-star restaurant; instead, Iceland has dozens of tourists throwing up their mouthful of hákarl onto the pretty cobbled paths of Reykjavik.

Iceland’s preservation techniques have been honed over years of harsh winters

For a more accurate representation of Icelandic food, opt for the myriad combinations of fish and rye bread that you can find in Reykjavik, just as you can across Scandinavia; or, if you’re feeling more carnivorous, seek out a serving of hangikjöt, the smoked lamb which Icelanders place at the heart of their Sunday roasts. Beyond that, there’s modern Reykjavik’s most iconic street food, the pylsur, a lavishly topped lamb hot dog with a cult following at home and abroad. Bæjarins Beztu is the most famous chain (and the favoured choice of Bill Clinton, allegedly), but you can find a pylsur anywhere, and at any time of day.

If you are still itching to try your hand at eating hákarl, you may as well do it properly. Choose from the two kinds of hákarl meat – glerhákarl (the chewier kind, often with a bit more colour) and skyrhákarl (the whiter, more yielding kind) – and then pour yourself a bracing shot of Brennivín, the local schnapps. Pop a block of hákarl into your mouth and chase it with your shot; for politeness’s sake, try to keep it down, and don’t say that you weren’t warned.

Once cured, the hákarl takes pride of place in the annual Þorrablót feast

This article is an updated version of a story created by Camille Buckley.

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