Young Pioneer Tours


Introduction to Hakarl


What is hakarl? How bad is it? and should you eat it? All that and more as we review the legendary rotten shark of Iceland.

At Young Pioneer Tours we do enjoy a dose of weird food, from Balut in the Philippines to dog in North Korea the world has some strange cuisine.

Yet there is one food that regularly tops any “most rancid food,” or Most disgusting food in the world” blogs, and that is hakarl.

In 2019 YPT ran our first tour to Greenland and decided that we should probably try hakarl for ourselves as we were in Reykjavik.

Here’s our ultimate to one of the worst foods in the world Harkarl – the piss smelling fermented shark.

What is Hakarl?

Long story short, food that stinks of piss! But I feel we deserve a bit of a better explanation than that. Simply put, it is the fermented meat of the Greenlandic shark or the hakarl shark. In case you’re not entirely sold on it yet I’ll carry on.

What Is the History of this smelly Shark?

Greenlandic stark has been tormented for centuries in Iceland and mentioned in the country’s sagas. In case your geography is not all that good Iceland gets rather cold and thus they need to preserve meats for the winter. Iceland has a lack of salt, the primary vehicle for preserving foods, thus the hakarl technique was pioneered.

The interesting point here is that before Greenlandic shark is cured, it is poisonous, so much like the pufferfish. More on that bit later.

How do they make Hakarl?

Hákarl, or to give its proper name kæstur hákarl (rotten shark), is weirdly like the national dish of Iceland. Although your average Icelander will tell you its just for the tourists these days.

Greenland Shark meat is poisonous when fresh, so rather than just not eat it like a sensible person, in Iceland they behead the shark and then bury it in a sandpit covered by rocks. This gets rid of the poison. Quite how someone discovered this is weird enough in itself. How many people died before they made it not poisonous? I digress.

The shark then ferments for 6-12 weeks before being dug-up, cut into strips and hung out to dry for up to 5 months in a barn. Due to the fermentation, the barn then starts to stink, like really really stink, and not just stink, but the stink of ammonia, so it smells like piss. Surely you are salivating by now?

OK, I’m sold, how do I eat the rancid fishy?

The pieces are tiny, you grab a piece on a toothpick, chew it for 30 seconds and then chase it with a shot of Brennevin. For people not used to the unique flavour and smell newcomers are told to hold their noses when consuming hakarl. You then do a shot of the local moonshine.

Brennivin is literally the most important part of eating hakarl as it is aid that it kills any unwanted bacteria from it. Always a bit worrying when you are suggested to drink a glass of firewater after consuming a dish. Brennivin is interesting itself as even during prohibition in Iceland, the drink was not banned due to its connection with hakarl.

How does hakarl taste?

Before we answer how it tastes, we should first deal with how does hakarl smell? It doesn’t smell good! Hakarl smells of ammonia, so essentially, it smells a lot like urine. As for the taste of hakarl, it really isn’t all that bad. Quite dry and definitely fishy in texture, I feel it is underserved of being labelled “one of the worst foods in the world,” although I’d rather have a Big Mac. Ironically there is no McDonalds in Iceland.

Where can I eat hakarl?

There are two options, the free or the paid version (in Reykjavik anyone). Firstly Reykjavik Flea Market has hakarl as a free taster, among other things. This makes a great budget meal, as Iceland is very expensive. Chase it with a can of Okra the most unhealthy drink in Iceland (allegedly).

Secondly, there’s Icelandic Street Food and Craft Beer (they also have a comedy club).

The street food here is cheap and good, hakarl comes with the required shot of moonshine, and underneath is a rather lovely comedy club. I was genuinely impressed with the quality of the open mic night!

Now, while coronavirus is ballsing up a travel a bit now, we are hoping to run another Greenland Tour in 2022! Lets all eat hakarl together.