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. Iceland recently announced that they would be fully opening to vaccinated tourists, which means so many good things, Icelandic scenery, potential Greenland cruises and of course the chance to eat hakarl.
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 it for ourselves as we were in Reykjavik.
Here’s our ultimate to what is considered 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. In case you’re not entirely sold on it yet I’ll carry on about this delicacy.
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.
In cold climates preserving fish and meats has gone on for thousandth of years. The traditional method to cure meat in most countries is by using salt. For whatever reason Iceland is severely lacking in salt, less of an issue now we have world trade, but a huge deal back in the days when people had to make do.
The interesting point here is that before Greenlandic shark is cured, it is poisonous, so it is much like the pufferfish. So, somehow they discovered that by curing the Greenlandic shark this way it would no longer poisonous and edible. The BIG question here though, for me at least is just how many people died trying various forms of the dish before they foind a way to make it edible?
How do they make Hakarl?
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? Make people hungry enough and they will surely innovate. Hakarl is evidence of this.
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.Again one wonders quite how many decades it took to work out this very long and labour intense process for such a rancid food. 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? Rotten fish that smells of urine?
Why the hell do they eat it then?
I think this is two questions, principally, why do they eat it, and why do they cure it in such a way? Essentially Iceland becomes a barren wasteland when it gets to winter, there are no vegetables, or meat and the water is frozen, so no fish. Nowadays not so much of an issue, but back in the day huge problem. Meats and fish had to be cured to be eaten when it got cold in Iceland. The Greenlandic shark could be cured and kept to eat.
So, why not cure it in salt like normal people? This is by far the more interesting question when it comes to the preparation of hakarl. Amazingly Iceland does not produce its own salt, or rather not nearly enough for any use. They therefore had to be a little bit more inventive when it came to curing things, hence piss smelling rancid shark was thus born out of necessity rather than choice!
So, whilst this might be a big of c controversial food, you have to admire the human ingenuity that lead to the invention of it. It therefore holds a special place in the Icelandic heart!
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. And that is really the main reason why it gets such a bad rap, the smell.
As for the taste of hakarl, it really isn’t all that bad. Quite dry and definitely fishy in texture. In essence it does not taste all that much of anything and even if it did it is soon washed away by the shot of Brennevin. In some respects eating hakarl is more about ritual, almost in the way that you would do a shot of tequila. The locals have certainly embraced it as a way to temp tourists!
I therefore feel it is underserved of being labelled “one of the worst foods in the world,” although I’d rather have some Icelandic street food, or a Big Mac, although Ironically there is no McDonalds in Iceland, one of the few western European countries to be able to boast this.
Where can I eat hakarl?
There are two options in Reykjavik that I found, the free or the paid version. 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 soft drink in Iceland, but also one of the cheapest
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 comes with lots of pomp and ceremony and is set as a treat for the tourists. You will see many shots knocked back here. And if that was not enough theres a decent comedy club underneath.
And hurrah Iceland is now open to tourism with us looking to put on another Greenland Tour in 2023! And yes YPT will once again be eating Hakarl before we go!