Hákarl is a traditional dish in Iceland composed of fermented (I say rotten) Greenland shark. The Greenland shark when eaten fresh is poisonous, as it contains high amounts of Uric Acid (The same thing in pee). So what did the Icelanders do to make it edible? They bury it under ground to let it rot, of course.
Hákarl has purportedly been around since the time of the vikings in Iceland, and is still eaten today. The impression I got however, especially among the young folks, is this dish is falling out of favor.
In order to make Hákarl, they start out with a Greenland Shark. The Greenland shark is not your typical Jaws variety shark. It is what is referred to as a “Sleeper shark” and is very slow moving and generally regarded as a scavenger. Interestingly enough, it is the longest living vertebrate species in the world, with a lifespan of up to 400 years.
So to make Hákarl they take the shark and then gut it and behead it. It is traditionally buried underground with several heavy stones set on top to squeeze out the juices. It is then removed after about 3 to 4 months, and hung to dry until a nice crust forms on the outside. The shark is then cut into small cubes and served on tooth picks.
On my first trip to Iceland, I knew I had to try Hákarl. I picked one of the best restaurants in Reykjavik, futilely hoping that it might taste better at such a place. I ordered an appetizer version of the delicacy which came with some bread and dried cod sticks (What?).
When the Hákarl arrived at my table, it came in several bite sized pieces sealed in a glass jar. The waiter handed me the plate with an accompanying look of disgust and said, “Here is your awful shark”. Enthralled by his endorsement of the meal, I dug right in. As soon as I opened the jar I was greeted by the overwhelming presence of ammonia. Like Bathroom cleaner ammonia. It was very strong and overpowered the whole dish.
I took my first bite and my entire sinuses were immediately filled with the stench of ammonia. It burned my nose. Surprisingly, the actually taste of the shark wasn’t that bad. It wasn’t good, but it didn’t make me want to stop eating it. It tasted like a fishy blue cheese. I quickly figured out if I didn’t breathe while eating, it was tolerable.
So was it the worst food in the world?
I think an unpleasant texture for most people is the hardest part about “gross” food. With Hákarl, the texture wasn’t bad, it was only the ammonia smell that was so off putting.
Next time you’re in Iceland, give it a try. Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern have both tasted it, and hated it. Too me, its not so bad. My quest for the worst food in the world continues.