Warning: This describes a food that many will find disgusting.
Kaestur Hakarl is a traditional Icelandic food, one that kept the Vikings alive for generations in the early centuries of settlement. It is made from Greenland shark, which is beheaded, buried in a shallow trench and weighted down with stones for as long as three months. Then the shark meat is cut into long strips and dried. Hakarl is served in tiny cubes and is considered by some a delicacy… and by some a dare.
The texture isn’t really dry; it’s more like smoked fish. Daniel told Villi, our Air B&B host, that he wanted to try it as part of his Icelandic experience. Villi laughed and said, “Just don’t bring it into the apartment. The smell!” Linda quickly added a codicil that he could not have it in the rental car either.
Daniel finally found some hakarl at the Kolaportid flea market near Gamla Hofnin, the Old Harbor. We went there so Linda could find an Icelandic sweater. At the adjoining fish market we found pieces of hakarl, served in a tiny plastic tasting cup, complete with a toothpick. It cost $500 ISK (kroner)—about five bucks US. Daniel asked if I wanted to try it. Well, why not? We stepped out into the alley to sample this traditional food. Linda had zero interest in trying it.
Based on my experience, if you are going to try hakarl on your visit to Iceland, here are 3 tips.
2) Do not smell it before you try to eat it.
3) Have drinking water immediately available.
The texture, as I said, was pretty firm, a little silky to the touch. The first taste to hit my tongue was rot-like, no surprise, since the “fermentation process” when the shark is buried is basically rotting. My gag reflex kicked in. I mastered it, but it was a close thing. A second later in the taste curve that is hakarl came the 10% of the experience that was pleasant. A savory, umami flavor trickled over my tongue and down the back of my throat, right before the taste of rot came rushing back. Before I started retching the rot taste was swept away by a tsunami of ammonia that rose clear up into my sinuses, making my nostrils prickle and my eyes water.
“Hmm,” Daniel said, “there is an aftertaste.”
A minute later he said, “There is still an aftertaste. I think it is coating the inside of my mouth.”
I finished gulping water and handed my bottle to him. He polished it off. After some consideration, he threw the remaining three bites away.
This strange food-preparation process came about, according to various sites, because there was very little protein available to the Norse settlers. Greenland sharks were plentiful and large, but their meat, unprocessed, is toxic to humans. The burying process forces the toxic fluids out of the shark flesh.
Fermented and dried flesh also might have traveled better for when Icelandic settlers were out on Viking raids.
Now it’s a yummy taste treat.
I can say with… pride? I guess? that I ate traditional Icelandic rotting shark. I’ve done it, so you don’t have to.
In case I haven’t done this taste experience justice, here is a link to Kaestur Hakarl.