Spend enough time in Iceland, and somebody will inevitably offer you a few cubes of unidentifiable, white meat on a toothpick. You, being a curious and discerning traveler, will ask what it is. They’ll tell you it’s Hákarl. You’ll then ask what Hákarl is—and then you’ll wish you didn’t.
Hákarl is, in simplest terms, fermented shark meat.
It’s made from the meat of the Greenland shark, which is not only one of the largest shark species on earth, but the earth’s longest-living vertebrate. Under ordinary circumstances—that is, when the shark has just been pulled out of the water—its meat is poisonous due to its high levels of urea and trimethylamine oxide. Thousands of years ago, however, as the people of Iceland looked for ways to preserve food through the cold winter months, they realized that if the meat is fermented, it becomes edible—though we use that term very loosely.
The process of fermenting Greenland shark meat is long and complicated.
First, the shark is beheaded and cleaned. The carcass is then buried in a pit of sand and covered with heavy rocks, which ostensibly help push the undesirable juices from the meat below. Then comes the waiting.
The shark meat is left underground for a period of 6-18 weeks depending on a number of conditions, including the time of year. Once an adequate amount of time has passed, the meat is unearthed, sliced into smaller pieces, and hung in the open air dry. This process takes another few months, during which time the meat’s exterior takes on a brown, bark-like quality.
Once the drying process is complete, the meat is nearly ready to eat. The browned exterior is removed and discarded, and the remaining meat is cut into small portions for packaging and consumption.
If this sounds like something you’re interested in trying, you’re in luck.
The strange nature of Hákarl has made it one of the most famous dishes in Iceland. As such, it’s available at a long list of restaurants all over the country, and on a number of local culinary tours.
Most commonly, it’s paired with a drink called Brennivín. Brennivín, which is easily Iceland’s most famous alcoholic beverage, is made with fermented grain mash and Iceland’s high-pH water, and flavored only with caraway. It’s definitely an acquired taste in its own right, but after a mouthful of Hákarl, you’ll be eager to cleanse your palate with just about anything.
So what does Hákarl actually taste like?
In the past, it’s been compared to everything from supercharged blue cheese to the inside of an old shoe. One of the very best descriptions of this strange dish came from late celebrity chef, author and television host Anthony Bourdain, who called it “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he had ever eaten.
Bourdain had previously gorged on things like sheep testicles in Morocco and cobra heart in Vietnam, so that’s definitely saying something.
By now you’re probably wondering why anybody would willingly eat Hákarl. That’s a fair question.
Among the few Icelandic people that actually eat it, it’s either an acquired taste or a way of keeping in touch with one’s roots. For visitors, it’s generally eaten for novelty’s sake—the same way you might chow down on a fried scorpion on Bangkok’s Khao San Road or Balut (a fertilized egg embryo boiled in its own shell) in the Philippines.
You probably won’t enjoy it, but you can tell people you tried it. That counts for something!