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 Brennivín (strong Icelandic alcohol). Sounds good right!
You can actually have shark with a different strength of taste and usually travelers are offered a milder version than the elder generation in North West Iceland would prefer.
The taste of the 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, slight chewy with a little bit of an aftertaste. But I have also heard it is “Like chewing a urine-infested mattress” 😉.
Famous last words about the rotten shark
Some of the most famous chefs in the world have come to Iceland and tried the fermented shark. 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” .
But each to his own, the shark is well appreciated among many.
Well, at least many Icelanders but to be honest it’s more the older generation.
The fermentation process
The Greenland shark is cured with a particular fermentation process. 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 meat is actually poisonous when fresh but 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 is pungent.