Fermented shark in Iceland.
You’ve heard the horror stories from other travelers.
“Try it,” they say.
“It’s good,” they repeat with a smirk.
Just thinking about it gives you the shivers, right?
Hákarl, or fermented shark, is a traditional Icelandic food dating back to the early days of Iceland’s Viking past. Today, mostly brave foreigners try the shark on a dare after a drunken night of partying into the wee hours in Reykjavik. It’s become almost a right of passage. You haven’t been to Iceland unless you have eaten fermented shark.
How is fermented shark made?
Fermented shark is simply rotting shark. Sounds delicious, huh? It is made commonly from the Greenland shark that is found in the Northern Atlantic, but sometimes it is made from other sleeper sharks caught off the coast of Iceland.
Fermented shark is traditionally prepared by beheading the shark and placing it into a shallow hole in the ground to ferment for 6-12 weeks depending on the season. Why does it need to be buried? That’s a good question. The Greenland shark is poisonous if consumed fresh. Once the shark is placed into the giant hole and covered with sand, rocks are placed on top of it to press out the toxic liquids, like uric acid.
Once the shark has fermented, it is removed from the ground and cut into small strips to hang dry for several months until someone says it’s safe to eat. Bon appetit!
Fun fact: The average Greenland shark is 24 feet long. That’s a big hole!
Is it really that bad?
It depends on your taste buds. Anthony Bourdain has said it is “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he has ever eaten. And he has eaten a lot of things!
On the television show, The F Word, Gordon Ramsey challenged James May to eat three “delicacies” found around the world: Laotian snake whiskey, bull penis, and fermented shark. Ramsey spat out the fermented shark in disgust.
Personally, I didn’t think it was that bad. It tasted a bit fishy, but nothing reminiscence of the most disgusting food on the planet. I don’t think I would eat it often, though.
However, the shot of Brennivín was the worst. When translated from Icelandic, Brennivín means “burning wine.” And burn it did! Yuck! Brennivín is an 80-proof schnapps liquor made from fermented potatoes and caraway. It is often called the “Black Death.” Try it and you’ll know why real quick.
Where can I try fermented shark in Iceland?
If you’re really daring, you can purchase it at the supermarket. I dare you to eat the whole container!
We tried fermented shark at Cake Loki, a little cafe serving traditional Icelandic food near the Hallgrímskirkja Church. The Icelandic Braveheart dish contained several samples of fermented shark, dried fish, crackers, and a shot of Brennivín to finish it all off.
Islenski Barinn, or Icelandic Bar, is another popular spot to snack on traditional Icelandic food. It’s popular among both tourists and locals so if you want dinner it is best to make a reservation. The restaurant serves a ton of local Icelandic beer and traditional dishes, like fermented shark, fish jerky, and puffin.