Thursday, July 25, 2019

Fermented Shark or Hakarl

Iceland produces a dish that is famously horrible. It is known as hakarl in Icelandic, or fermented or rotten shark in English.

The Greenland shark, a huge shark that can grow to more than 21 feet long and weigh more than 2,200 pounds, is comparable in size to a great white shark. It is an apex predator and mostly eats fish, but specimens have been found with remains of polar bears, horses and moose inside them. However, it does not attack humans. It is the Methuselah of animals, with the longest known lifespan, estimated at 300 to 500 years. It does not reach sexual maturity until 150 years of age. It lives at great depths and has high concentrations of uric acid and trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO) in its tissues, which counteracts the protein-destabilizing effects of pressure, and acts as a natural anti-freeze to protect it from frigid waters, however, it also makes the meat toxic to humans. 

The Vikings found a way to counter-act the toxins. They would cut off the head, drop the body of the shark in a hole dug into the sand, then cover it with stones and gravel to weigh it down and press the liquids out of the body. They would also urinate on it and leave it there for 6 to 12 weeks, fermenting in its own fluids. The fermented shark is then exhumed, cut into strips and placed in a drying shack for several months to dry. When it smells similar to rancid cheese, it is ready. Another indication of readiness is a crusty brown outer layer. This link to an amazing video from National Geographic shows a huge Greenland shark being carried by a tractor, then buried and processed. It is worth your time. 

The finished product can make even the most seasoned strong stomachs squeamish. Anthony Bourdain placed it in a category with Namibian warthog rectum and said he would never taste it again. Andrew Zimmern placed it among the ten most bizarre foods he's ever eaten. He said that "eating it without gagging is what separates the men from the boys. While the smell of the putrefied shark itself could make the faint-hearted ill, the taste is ultimately sweet, nutty and faintly fishy...if you like ammoniated wax." In this link to a video of Gordon Ramsey and James May drinking Laotian snake whiskey, then bull penis and fermented shark, in that order, Ramsey vomited his fermented shark into a bucket, he couldn't keep it down. 

Judy and I both had some at Cafe Loki in Reykjavik, where it came sliced in tiny cubes in a cup. It was not all that bad in such a small dose. 
Fermented shark at Cafe Loki.
The next day, our guide picked up on the fact that I like exotic foods. So he drove us to a fish store where they sold the fermented shark, among other things. So I purchased a pretty big hunk and took it back to the hotel. The smell is exactly like opening a big jug of ammonia and sticking your nose in it and taking a big whiff. I was a janitor for three years in college and I know whereof I speak. I think I lost some of my smell perception from that stint, which probably is a benefit when eating something like this. 
This is the fermented shark at the fish store. Note the crusty brown outer layer.
The taste and texture is really not that bad, nothing like the smell. But as you chew it you get a burn at the back of your throat that migrates up your mouth to your tongue and does not go away. I ate the piece from the fish store about an hour or so before dinner and the burn was still bothering me at dinner and I had to order a couple of Cokes to help deaden my mouth tissues and make it go away. 
This is the slice I purchased from the fish store...
...and the bites I took out of it before taking the rest out to a garbage can outside the hotel so that we would not get kicked out of our room because of the smell. 
I didn't think it was vomit in a bucket bad, but it takes some pretty serious determination to voluntarily submit to sticking it in your mouth. I think it is appropriate that Vikings developed the process. I think if you eat enough of it, you get the horns to grow out of your head. 

1 comment:

  1. That's an awesome video. After watching it, I feel like I've been promoted to Level 10 (out of 10) in the Gross Things I've Eaten realm. I agree that we've eaten worse, but that little square we had on our first day was enough to last a lifetime for me.