Rotten shark anyone?
On my recent travels to Iceland, I was told about a traditional dish called hákarl. The only thing I read or heard about it was that it tasted awful. I trusted that countless critiques, but I still had to try it for myself.
In order to understand why it’s called rotten shark, I’ll explain the process it goes through to make it edible. The Greenland shark, which lives in almost freezing waters, urinates through its skin to keep it from freezing. They excrete trimethylamine oxide (TMAO), which acts as antifreeze, but is also poisonous to humans. The Vikings were aware of this and passed on their fermentation process and tradition to the Icelandic people.
The shark meat is left to rot so that the TMAO will seep out of the flesh. This can be done below or above ground for 6-12 weeks. Once it is appropriately rotten, it is hung to dry for several more months. It has a very pungent smell, but those in charge of the fermentation know exactly when it’s ready.
I was given the opportunity to taste hákarl while walking through a market. The woman noted it did not have a pleasant flavor, but that didn’t discourage me. The initial flavor was subtle despite the smell. It was chewy, but after a few bites the fermented flavor hits you. It is hard to describe, but it has a sour flavor that would be comparable to rotten/sour milk. I continued my chewing and am glad I tried it, but I saw no reason to eat more.
This delicacy can be found in stores year round, but it is most commonly eaten at the Þorrablót festival with a variety of other cured meats that would not be commonly found elsewhere. If you are interested in learning more, National Geographic does a wonderful job explaining the process.
What delicacies or different foods have you tried?