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Hákarl: Iceland’s fermented, dried shark that smells like urine and can taste like rotten cheese

4 min read

Greenland sharks are the world’s longest-living vertebrates, often partially blind, and can grow up to 7,5 meters long.
Moreover, their meat is poisonous and, eaten fresh, it can cause a serious intoxication.
But this didn’t stop clever Vikings from figuring out that burying pieces of the massive sharks under rocks and dirt for several weeks would neutralize these toxins.
The preparation process is to gut and behead the shark and place it in a shallow hole dug in gravelly-sand. The hole is covered with sand and gravel, stones are placed on top in order to press out the fluids. The shark ferments and rots for 6–12 weeks, depending on the season.
Following curing, the shark is cut into strips and hung to dry for several months so it could age some more. During the drying period, a brown crust will develop, which is removed before cutting it into small pieces and serving in cubes, and the result is so-called hákarl, which is both loved and hated by modern Icelanders.
The Viking Icelandic tradition to preserve and eat sleeper sharks has been around for more than a millennia, and is still eaten all year long today.

You can grab a taste (a few pieces) of Hakarl at many traditional Icelandic restaurants.
The first thing you’ll notice is the smell.
Because boy does it stink and, like pee, that’s been in the sun and had animals pee on on it for a few days. It’s quite obvious why it’s recommended not to sniff it before eating it, a tip most ignore and promptly regret.
At first bite, the taste doesn’t seem so bad. Perhaps this is because a large percentage of taste comes from your olfactory sense, and there is a mild slightly white fish tang. Then it hits with the heavy taste of ammonia creeps up your throat, where sits there for a while with its flavor of fishy pee and rotting flesh.
The water will do nothing. If you must have it, have it with a shot of Brennivín (also known as Black Death) a potent schnapps made from potato and caraway, to wash away the taste.
Soft, white hákarl from the shark’s body has a cheese-like texture, while reddish meat from the belly is chewier.
Those who taste it describe the flavor in different ways, from mild fishy to strong like blue cheese, but most agree that the lingering aftertaste can be described only as urine.
It is the uric acid present in fresh Greenland shark that contributes to its ammonia-like smell.

On modern times Hákarl is fermented in containers instead of dirt, and the majority of the country’s supply is produced at the Bjarnarhöfn Shark Museum.
Tourists often sample it, but hákarl is also a component of the midwinter þorramatur meal, celebrated during the Þorrablót, a sacrificial midwinter festival offered to the gods in pagan Iceland of the past. It was abolished during the Christianization of Iceland, but revived in the 19th century as a midwinter celebration that continues to be celebrated still today. The date coincides with the month of Thorri, according to the old Icelandic calendar, which begins on the first Friday after January 19th, the 13th week of winter.
Origins of the name “Thorri” are unclear but it is most likely derived from Norwegian king Thorri Snærsson, or Thor the God of Thunder in the old Nordic religion.
On this occasion, locals come together to eat, drink and be merry. Customary, the menu consists of unusual culinary delicacies, known as traditional Icelandic food. These will include, together with hákarl, boiled sheep’s head (svið), and congealed sheep’s blood wrapped in a ram’s stomach (blóðmör)!
This is traditionally washed down with some Brennivin.
After the Thorrablot dinner traditional songs, games and story telling are accompanied by dancing and in true Icelandic style continue until the early hours of the morning.
While curious tourists and the Þorrablót survive, so too will hákarl….

Images from web – Google Research