Full disclosure: I like eating weird food. It’s one of my favorite things about traveling. I’ve tried chicken feet in China (delicious), haggis in Scotland (somewhat less delicious), and pig intestines in Hong Kong (think really chewy, orange meat noodle). When I got to Iceland, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. After all, it’s normally the volcanoes, glaciers, and black-sand beaches that draw people to this island, not the food.
But a Google search quickly laid my fears of a boring national cuisine to rest, revealing tame options like lamb and fish, as well as some truly shocking ones: svið (a boiled sheep’s head), whale (follow your own moral compass on that one), and the curious hákarl.
Hákarl is an infamous food in Iceland and translates loosely to “putrescent” or “fermented” shark meat. At least, those are the tasteful translations. The most common term seems to be “rotten.” I immediately knew I had to try it.
(Side note: this is kind of a strange reaction now that I think about it. After all, this is a food that Gordon Ramsay spit out and that Anthony Bourdain described as “probably the single worst thing I have ever put in my mouth.” He even blacklisted it as a dish he would never eat again, right alongside Namibian warthog rectum. But what can I say? I couldn’t not try it.)
But, back to the shark. Hákarl is typically made from Greenland shark, the meat of which is poisonous when fresh. (Weird! It’s almost as if this stuff isn’t meant to be eaten…) “No problem,” said the Icelanders. “What if just bury the thing?” So, the (beheaded) carcass is covered with rocks, sand, and gravel and buried for a few months. Turns out this works, though I imagine there was some interesting trial-and-error along the way. After being dug up, the shark is hung to dry for a few more months before being served.
Okay, enough background; I know you’re wondering if it tastes as terrible as it sounds. I went to Café Loki in Reykjavík to find out. Billed as a place to try traditional Icelandic food, I figured it would be as good a place as any. I got the menu and immediately scoped out the shark. It came with a platter called “Icelandic Braveheart,” which also included dried fish (think fish jerky), bread, and a shot of brennivín, a traditional Icelandic aquavit.
When the plate arrived, everything seemed innocent enough. Just four little cubes of white meat on toothpicks. Remarkably plain. My confidence rose. And then it immediately fell when the smell hit me—an ammonia-heavy odor somewhere between decaying flesh and cleaning supplies. That and the looks of horror directed at me by several older folks two tables over had me thinking I might be in for a bit more than I had originally thought.
I picked up a toothpick and looked it over. (Not too close, though, that smell is seriously rank). I took a bite. Gasps from the other table. Chewing. A weird burning sensation rising into my nose. Then it was over.
Overall, smells way worse than it tastes. Chewy (though nothing compared to pig intestine), a bit fishy (no surprise there), and a pronounced hint of Windex, but certainly not as terrible as expected. Plus, the quicker you finish it, the quicker you can wash it all down with the traditional brennivín shot!
Would I recommend it? Well, maybe not. But would I try it again? Definitely, if only to be able to say that I’m more hardcore than Anthony Bourdain.