Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Hákarl (Rotten Shark) - The Worst Thing I Have Ever Had In My Mouth

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Much as I love Iceland when I visit earlier this year, it's responsible for the single most disgusting eating experience I've had in my life. And no, I'm not talking about that sheep's face.

I've heard about hákarl, or to give it its proper name, kæstur hákarl (Icelandic for "fermented shark"), as being an unmissable and unique part of Icelandic cuisine, so on my arrival in Reykjavik, I'm determined to track some down.

Like svið, hákarl is traditionally served as part of a þorramatur, the Icelandic banquet served at the midwinter festival þorrablót. Luckily for me however, it's available in Icelandic supermarkets throughout the year. In fact I find a packet of rotten shark in a freezer store (Iceland's Iceland) and nearly buy some to take back home, but then realise it might be considered a bit anti-social on the plane.

Made from a type of shark which is actually poisonous when fresh due to a high content of uric acid and trimethylamine oxide, the process for rendering the shark remotely "edible" is described eloquently in Wikipedia:

"Hákarl is traditionally prepared by gutting and beheading a Greenland or basking shark and placing it in a shallow hole dug in gravelly-sand, with the now-cleaned cavity resting on a slight hill. The shark is then covered with sand and gravel, and stones are then placed on top of the sand in order to press the shark. The fluids from the shark are in this way pressed out of the body. The shark ferments for 6–12 weeks depending on the season in this fashion.

Following this curing period, the shark is then cut into strips and hung to dry for several months. During this drying period, a brown crust will develop, which is removed prior to cutting the shark into small pieces and serving".

I expect all sorts of thoughts are rushing through your head right now, such as "Why?", "How?", "What?", and "Why?" again. As my husband says, someone must have really been determined to eat that shark.

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So we bomb it down to Cafe Loki, a bright and airy cafe above Textill, a handicraft shop owned by the same people, in a quarter of Reykjavik with wonderful Asgardian names. In sight of the stunning Hallgrims Church, I order a traditional Icelandic tasting platter, and my husband wisely orders the safe option of lamb pate and soup.

More on this delicacy from Wikipedia:

"Those new to it will usually gag involuntarily on the first attempt to eat it due to the high ammonia content".

Never mind attempting to eat it, we're gagging long before, as the caustic stench of the shark assaults us before the food gets to our table.

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(So moved am I by the noxious fumes - like ramming bleach right up your nostrils - I break my self-imposed holiday Twitter ban that night to tweet that it resembles "a tramp's sock soaked in urine").

The hilarious thing is how (in contrast to svið), hakarl appears to be the most innocuous thing in the world - little creamy-white cubes stuck on toothpicks - like 70s party food, if that party was held in Hell.

Traditionally it comes with a shot of the local spirit brennivín (a type of aniseedy akvavit or schnapps) which I presume is to soften the blow, although itself is not particularly pleasant and is known as svarti dauði ("black death").

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Eyes watering with pain, I decide the easiest way to get rid of the unholy fug is to just eat the damned stuff. Holding my nose, I poke a cube of shark in my mouth and chew.

UUhhhhhHHooorraAAAAAAUhrrrRRRRrughhhauuKAAAarrrrUUUuull.

Hákarl is in fact a good approximation of the sound your throat makes as it contorts and constricts in a desperate attempt to regurgitate the chunks of fetid fish.

So anyway, this piece of advice, dear readers, is my Christmas present to you: please go to Iceland but do not eat the shark.

Merry Christmas Everyone!

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I look happy, don't I? It's all a facade.

Cafe Loki
Lokastígur 28
Opposite Hallgrímskirkja
101 Reykjavík
Iceland
www.textil.is

46 comments:

  1. Respect to you Mimi.

    I bow down.

    Happy Christmas.

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  2. Why in your right mind would you ever put something you describe as a "tramp's sock soaked in urine" in your mouth!! I mean I have a certain level of respect as I have now read your experience so I now never have to.

    This post is going to haunt me for a long time. I feel sorry for you as you have the actual memory of eating it.

    I need a section of my browser to bookmark this but it has to be the opposite of "Favorites" (sic)

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  3. @Helen @ Fuss Free Flavours - Why thank you. Happy Christmas to you too!

    @Keith - It seemed like a good idea at the time. "Anti-favorites?"

    @Dom at Belleau Kitchen - Hahahaha

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  4. Sooooo.... did you swallow it?!

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  5. Anti-favourites works, doesn't it?

    Meems, that is RANK. And you put it in your mouth. The mind BOGGLES. And boggles some more. And then wants to hide at the sheer insanity of it.

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  6. @Su-Lin - Every last bit.

    @Kavey - You love it.

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  7. What you mean to say that you didn't go "Nom Nom Nom" when you ate it?

    Must say a tramp's sock soaked in urine doesn't sound pleasant at all but well done MiMi anyway.

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  8. You know what went through my mind half way through that post? This: "..."

    It had closed down at the thought of what you were about to do. *shudder* I think that even trumps (literally...?) andouilette as the ultimate horror food.

    The name is so innocuous - fermented shark - sounds like a decent nordic brew to me. Rotten Hell Shark might be a better name.

    Well done for even ordering it, though actually eating it may and veered from the brave to the insane ;).

    PS, Surely Hallgrims is the world's biggest lego church?

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  9. @Food Urchin - Not this time.

    @The Grubworm - Yay, I broke your mind!

    But Lego is beautiful, goose bhuna man. Look at my other pics of that church eg here.

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  10. Oh, my comment about lego was a complimentary one... I think lego's ace ;)

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  11. You are mad, utterly utterly mad. I like to think I'm pretty adventurous with food and will try most things but there is no way you would have gotten that piss flavoured shark anywhere near my face.

    I'm not sure if I'm deeply awed in admiration or somewhat worried about your sanity. Maybe both. xxx

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  12. @bron - Heh

    @The Grubworm - Oh, all right then.

    @BeccaRothwell - You're doubting *my* sanity? I'd rather eat a shark than swim with one like you did :P

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  13. Perhaps you just didn't let it rot long enough. I'm sure if you'd given it another 6 weeks it would have been lovely.

    Either way I feel the urge to cover it in chocolate.

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  14. Oh my. There really are no words. Your commitment is seriously impressive :)

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  15. @Dom - Hehehe, you and your chocolate.

    @tori - I love weird stuff :D

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  16. So much respect for you right now. That sounds truly awful. But.... Errr...(valiently thinking of a positive)... now you know that you could definitely win an awful reality tv show in the spirit of I'm a Celebrity...?

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  17. oh my lord...yukiness indeed. Another fab blog, hope you and yours have a super Christmas x.

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  18. @Thea - That is my eventual goal in life, yes :)

    @Kaz (mrs.chutney) - Thank you - you too x

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  19. hehe y'know what, I'll stick to chicken ovaries, thanks. At least they just taste like hard boiled eggs...

    Respect.

    Wen

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  20. Yukkety yuk, I don't know why you did this to yourself but I'm very glad you did as you've made me laugh!

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  21. I saw a programme yesterday about 2 year rice-fermented fish eaten as a delicacy in Japan and thought of you - they didn't have the temerity to show anyone eating it (or perhaps they couldn't find anyone who would!)

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  22. I once said that I would try anything once, except for something which had gone rotten. There's something really perverse about eating meat that's gone off. Lordy, lordy, MiMi, that's real courage...

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  23. @Going with my Gut - Yeah but - an OVARY???

    @Sarah, Maison Cupcake - Thank you :)

    @Nicky - I saw a doc from the late 80s early 90s which did show someone eating the ancient sushi. I tried to find some last time I was in Japan but failed dismally.

    @chumbles - Courage or stupidity? *strokes chin*

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  24. Very impressive,I think I would have been tempted to dip those cute little cubes into the aniseed spirit you mentioned it being served with.

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  25. Wow MiMi, respect to you for your dedication to food, and actually tasting something that smelt that bad!

    While I was away I tried rats, bats and snake, but they weren't anything in comparison to a tramp's sock soaked in urine!!

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  26. @Northern Snippet - Yes, that might have dulled the pain

    @Nicola - Ha, you really did go on an adventure - I've just discovered Little Lost :)

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  27. I can cook toast2 February 2011 at 21:25

    That was funny.
    Thanks to you I have now added Hákarl to my list. (Naga Jolokia chili pepper first though).

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  28. @I can cook toast - So many horrible foods to try ;P

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  29. That was great! I just watched Anthony Bourdain gag on fermented shark. LOL

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    1. And that is why I really can't bring myself to try this when I go...because Bourdain, the man who ate still pulsing hearts, among other things, called 'rotten shark' the single worse thing he has ever put in HIS mouth (I sense a theme). He got it down though.

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  30. Respect. I sampled it and spat it straight in the bin.

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  31. Well, our editor in chief at my ex job visited Iceland and brought us some "gifts" from his trip. Along with håkarl and Black Death.

    I knew what to expect, and so did most of the rather well educated journalists and designers. But that bastard also knew if you dare a Finn, he or she is obliged.

    I know it was a cruel joke and we laughed at it for the whole week the piss taste lingered in our mouths. But I'm still saying the good old man had a sadistic streak.

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  32. Oh My. I'm not sure I could have brought myself to eat that...

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  33. I was in Reykjavik in the mid-1980's. Wanting to try a local 'delicacy', I went to a seaside restaurant. The wait staff suggested the fermented shark appetizer. Your blog entry brought back memories of the intensity of that experience.....but I eventually did get the taste out of my mouth.
    I think it was in 2002.

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  34. I had the exact same plate at Cafe Loki... You can read about it here. The rest of the food was fantastic (the lamb was divine), but the hakarl... not so much. I think the most off-putting thing for me was the texture. The taste was not so bad, but, then again, I like sour and fermented things (sour beers, very moldy cheeses). But the texture? It was just... wrong. So wrong.

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  35. I really, really want to try hakarl. I'm kind of obsessed with it to be honest. Everyone says it's awful, but I just feel like I have to know for myself.

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  36. Hákarl is awful, but I love Black Death!

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  37. I can only think that this is a result of some seriously starving Icelanders who caught a slow moving fish, ate it, died, and then figured out a way to eat it in order to stay alive.

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    1. Ate it, died, and THEN figured out a way to eat it...?

      Wow, Icelanders are cool, and reincarnated

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  38. On our trip to Iceland they served hákarl on the last evening. Exactly as many portions as there were participants, so that they could very easily trace the one who tried to escape eating it. Before they served it, they gave an extensive briefing on how it was prepared and how awful the taste was. Fortunately the cubes were quite small (I guess ~7 mm), so I survived. Actually, when you are prepared for the worst, it can only be less terrible than you thought.

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Thanks for taking the time to comment!