The Fermented Shark of Iceland

Icelandic Fermented shark in plastic cans

Everything you need to know about the fermented shark of Iceland

For centuries Icelanders had to find ways to store food during long and cold winters. That was before refrigerators and modern technology. One of those „delicacies“ and one of Iceland‘s national dishes is the fermented shark or kæstur hákarl, which we, of course, offer a taste of on our Reykjavik Food Lovers Tour for those who dare to try.

One way to know if you are being offered a fermented shark is the overwhelming smell of ammonia that refuses to leave your nostrils.

That’s why we tell first-timers to pinch their nose while taking the first bite and it’s best to wash it down with a shot of Brennivin which sometimes is called Black Death (strong Icelandic alcohol). Sounds good right!

You can actually have this with a different strength of taste and usually, travelers are offered a milder version than the elder generation in North West Iceland would prefer.

A food group tasting the Icelandic fermented shark at the Reykjavik flea market
A couple of girls trying out the fermented shark
Reykjavik food tour group trying out the fermented shark

The taste of the Icelandic fermented shark? 

My favorite description is that the shark tastes like old cheese with a hint of ammonia. But I have heard “Sweet, Nutty and only faintly fishy” and “Smells of urine that has a really strong aftertaste”  But actually the mild version is not too bad, slightly chewy with a little bit of an aftertaste. But I have also heard the stronger versions described as it is “Like chewing a urine-infested mattress” 😉.  Some have compared the shark to a Stilton Cheese and it’s actually using a similar bacteria when in the fermentation process.

The old fermentation process

The Greenland shark is cured with a particular fermentation process. One of the old traditional ways being as follows, the shark is gutted and beheaded and placed in a shallow hole dug in gravelly sand. The shark is completely covered with sand and piled stones on top for 6-12 weeks depending on the season.  This way the fluids are pressed out of the meat. The shark is then cut into strips and hung to dry for four to five months. The crust is removed prior to cutting the shark into small pieces and serving. Often served/sold in a small plastic container where it has been cut in small cubicles. That’s when a toothpick in your wallet comes in handy.

The new fermentation process

Bjarnarhöfn is the most famous makers of the fermented shark and they actually have a shark museum you can visit if you come to Iceland.  This family has been fishing and making shark for centuries so they know their shark.

Their fermentation process is that they put the meat into open cold storage boxes for around 6-9 weeks to ferment the shark and then the meat is hung outside for six months to fully dry out.

The meat loses about 30% in the fermentation process and then a further 60% in the drying process so only around 8% of the meat is left after the whole process of getting it ready for human consumption.

The Greenland shark is poisenous

The meat of the Greenland shark is actually poisonous when fresh, a little of it and you can turn blind, and then a little more can mean death.

But it may be consumed after being processed correctly so no need to worry, it’s perfectly safe to consume from the stores or markets in Iceland. You will be able to find it in most supermarkets. Few bits of advice though. Do not open the container in your car. Do not open the container in your hotel room either. To be completely honest, it is best eaten outside as the smell can be pungent.

Skyr shark and Glass shark

There are two types of shark meat available.

  • Skyr shark is like the fillet of the shark and its white meat which is usually what is cut up and served in the little plastic “tourist” containers.

  • Glass shark is the thinner pieces that turn red or brown in the fermentation process.  The meat is a bit more chewy and salty.

Famous last words about the rotten shark

Some of the most famous chefs in the world have come to Iceland and tried this unique Icelandic delicasy.  Anthony Bourdain described it as “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he has ever eaten (see promo video below) and Gordon Ramsay simply spat it out and cursed (another video down below).
In the tv show Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, the host said “That is hardcore, This is serious food, that’s not for beginners”.

Shark is eaten on Þorrablót

To be honest it’s more the older generation that likes the rotten shark today in Iceland.  But it’s a tradition of eating a little piece of the fermented shark when we in Iceland are celebrating the Þorrablót which are food (and drink) midwinter festivals that are held all over Iceland. But keep in mind we always try to have some Brennivín snaps at hand also for that ordeal.

Is the fermented shark the healthiest food produced in Iceland?

There is a chemical company in Iceland that analyzes food and according to them, the fermented shark is the healthiest food that is made in Iceland.  In the past, it was often custom to have a little bite as a sidedish with a meal.
This was sometimes food that was on the brink of becoming bad for you and the shark actually helped you with digestion.

Delicious right? 🙂

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