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Fermented shark | © Austin Matherne/Flickr
Fermented shark | © Austin Matherne/Flickr
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How Fermented Shark Became The National Dish Of Iceland

Picture of Camille Buckley
Updated: 30 March 2018
When it comes to Icelandic cuisine, the fermented shark is probably the most notorious. Famously tested and reviewed by Anthony Bourdain on his trip to Iceland, the dish is significant mainly for its incredibly revolting smell and taste and unique preparation. If you are in Iceland, it is definitely something to give a try if only to be proud of yourself for being so courageous to try this unique dish.

Icelandic culture, like many cultures around the world, is especially tied to tradition, which inherently circulates around the preparation and consumption of food. For good reason, food brings people together in the most fundamental way as it is a uniting factor when groups gather and when ceremonies are held. The variety of cultural traditions also brings a varied continuum of possibilities when it comes to what tastes good or bad. In the case of Iceland, the tradition comes from the necessity to cure food in a certain way so that it could last the long, harsh Icelandic winter.

Kæstur Hákarl
Kæstur Hákarl | © Audrey/Flickr

When settlers first arrived in Iceland many centuries ago, the abundant Greenlandic shark, found in the surrounding North Atlantic, became a staple food. The problem, however, was that this strange-looking shark was also poisonous for humans to eat because of its high ammonia levels. In order to survive, the clever Viking settlers developed a method of preserving and purifying the poisonous meat. The method involves leaving the meat up to hang for five months, making it edible and deliciously smelling of old pee and blue cheese.

Along with other Icelandic foods that are cured in curious ways, the fermented shark has a special place in traditional culture despite its aversive taste and smell. Another curious Iceland dish to try is a blood pudding made from sheep intestines, blood and fat, similar to Scottish haggis, and served with a sweet rice pudding. As well, one can try a smoked and boiled lamb prepared by burning birchwood or dried sheep dung in order to smoke the meat, which is served with peas and potatoes. While this is the traditional fare, the more modern and commonly found diet of an Icelander today consists more of hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza, falafel and the occasional fish. The same goes with many of these pickled and cured wonders left over and honored on special occasions as a tribute to the long Icelandic winters that the innovative settlers here had to accustom to and find a way to survive in the harsh climate.