Updated: Nov 9, 2020
The uniqueness of Iceland can be seen in various aspects. Not only the uniqueness of the country as a tourist destination because of its natural wonders. It can also be found in its history, culture, and cuisine. Let’s focus on that last one today, shall we?
Icelandic food is based primarily on simple and very easily accessible products. Its ingredients are not very sophisticated. This is due to the country’s history. In the past, Icelanders had to face the low availability of food due to the geographical location and harsh weather conditions. Moreover, in order for their food to stay fresh during the winter period, it had to be prepared in a specific way. This is why the fish and meat were dried, smoked, or salted to keep it fresh as long as possible. However, this also gave the meals a unique flavor. Some of those became traditional and somehow typical dishes in Iceland. There are some very distinctive ones that you should definitely try during your road trip in Iceland. One of them is Hakarl- the Icelandic fermented shark.
What is Hakarl?
Long story short, Hakarl, in Icelandic, is a plate made of the meat of fermented shark. To be exact, it is the meat of the Greenland shark. The meat however has to be first subjected to appropriate processing to make it possible for people to eat. Otherwise, it can be toxic to human beings. The meat of the Greenland shark cannot be directly eaten due to the presence of a large amount of trimethylamine oxide, which is responsible for poisoning people and dogs when they happen to eat it. The shark meat is toxic because this shark has no kidneys and the deposition of ammonia and similar substances go directly into the meat. This is why the right preparation of the meat is so important, otherwise, it would be poisoning.
How is shark meat processed in Iceland?
The traditional way to prepare this plate involves cleaning the meat properly and removing the unnecessary parts. Traditionally, it is all placed in a sand or gravel pit, however, it is more common to use plastic boxes nowadays. Once stored, it is left undisturbed for slow fermentation. The time that the meat has to be left in the box depends on the season of the year. During the summer it is usually between six and seven weeks while during the winter it would be from two to three months. When the fermentation process is over, the meat is then hanged in some special wooden bars to dry. This process can take even four months, depending on the weather conditions in Iceland. When the drying process is finished, the meat is removed from the shed and cut into small cubes (usually) before serving it.
Hákarl taste and smell are not for everyone and for those who are not Icelanders, it may not seem tasty at all. Experts know when the fermentation process is done basically when the ammonia smell appears. That might give you a clue on how the taste might be. The fishy taste is very strong and the ammonium is also noticeable. Hakarl taste is somewhat bitter and tart. It is hard to describe, but you should definitely try it. You’ll love it or hate it, just like the dilemma with Great Britain's HP sauce on its debut. Look at how many people love it now! You would definitely regret it if you miss the opportunity to try such a traditional Icelandic cuisine dish. If it gets hard to get through, I recommend you combining it with Brennivin, a traditional Iceland alcoholic drink!
Brennivinu is made of fermented potatoes and caraway. It literally means burning wine. It will make the taste of Hakarl more bearable. The one on the photo above is pure vodka though. I'm quite sure it also helps. Down goes another one.
The Greenland shark is one of the largest sharks and can mostly be found in the North Atlantic Ocean and the Arctic Ocean. The high level of trimethylamine oxide is due to its adaptation to living in the depth. It also has the longest known lifespan of all the vertebrate species. As mentioned above, its meat is toxic but with proper processing, it can be eaten by people. If the meat was eaten without the right preparation, it would cause effects compared to extreme drunkenness and even death. The only way to make the meat able to eat is to boil it, drying or fermenting for several months. And thus, the Greenland shark meat is now a delicacy you can try in Iceland.
One of the theories says that the Hakarl became the traditional Icelandic food by accident. At first, the sharks were fished for other reasons. Mainly to obtain the skin and the liver oil used for lamps. The remainings of the sharks were buried in the ground. The story says, that the hunger made one of the Icelanders try his luck, and dug out the fermented shark’s meat. It turned out that the harmful for human ingredients had already decomposed and the meat was no longer poisonous. Quite a risky experiment I would say, but as we can see it paid off.
Where to get Hakarl in Iceland?
Hakarl is easily accessible all around Iceland, if you will be renting a camper then you can make a hakarl tour! if you happen to like it, of course. You can get it in any supermarket. Even some souvenirs shops sell it. Some of the hotels offer it for their guests’ tasting. We do recommend to try it in one of our restaurants to have the best possible version of it. It cannot be compared to those sold massively in supermarkets, even if those are still very tasty.
In Reykjavik, you will find many great restaurants that offer Hakarl on their menu. One of them is the Icelandic bar which is said to serve the best Hakarl in Reykjavik.
How much is the fermented shark in Iceland?
The cost of Hakarl depends on the place we are getting it from. It can cost a fortune if you go for it in a restaurant. In some of the restaurants it is served as a side, and few cubes can cost around 5$. Not the best idea for those who are travelling on low budget. What would be a visit to Iceland, without trying its typical cuisine though? Hakarl - Icelandic fermented shark is indeed one of the most typical food you should try.