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Hakarl: Icelandic Traditional Delicacy of Fermented Shark

Updated: Sep 22, 2023

You may have heard of Hakarl, but what exactly is this traditional Icelandic delicacy of fermented shark? Let’s explore all about this unique culinary creation, where it came from, how it’s produced and where you can sample it for yourself!


Hakarl

What is Hakarl?


Long story short, Hakarl, in Icelandic, is a dish of fermented shark. To be exact, it is the meat of the Greenland shark. The Greenland shark is one of the largest shark species and can mostly be found in the North Atlantic Ocean and the Arctic Ocean.


This national dish of Iceland is made by curing the shark meat with a particular fermentation process and hanging it to dry for four to five months. Hakarl, or Icelandic fermented shark, can be found in Icelandic supermarkets all year round.


Hakarl is served as a delicacy during the midwinter festival of Thorrablot. The dish is served along with other traditional Icelandic food and takes place from mid-January to mid-February.


How Did Hakarl Come About?


You might be wondering how and why Hakarl was first created – after all, who would first think to ferment a shark? Let’s take a look at the interesting origin story of this Icelandic fermented shark meat dish.


Low Food Availability in Iceland


Iceland’s remote subarctic location creates unfavorable agriculture conditions. Therefore, Icelanders had to find ways to survive despite the low food availability. Icelandic food is, therefore, based primarily on simple and very easily accessible products.


In order for their food to stay fresh during the winter period, Icelanders had to prepare it in a specific way. Fish and meat were dried, smoked, or salted to keep them fresh as long as possible.


Icelandic fermented shark

The unique flavors created by preparing food in this way led to some famous typical dishes in Iceland that still survive today. Hakarl, Icelandic fermented shark, is the most distinctive of these delicacies. You should definitely try during your road trip to Iceland.


Creating Hakarl By Accident


One of the theories says that Hakarl became the traditional Icelandic food by accident. At first, sharks were fished for other reasons, mainly to obtain the skin and the liver oil used for lamps. The remains of the sharks were then buried in the ground.


The traditional story says that hunger made one of the Icelanders try his luck and dig up the fermented shark meat. Luckily, it turned out that the ingredients that were harmful to humans had already decomposed, and the meat was no longer poisonous. Quite a risky experiment, but it definitely paid off!


How is Hakarl Made?


Are you interested in trying Hakarl and want to know a bit more about how this traditional Icelandic shark dish is prepared? We’ll guide you through the traditional process of creating Hakarl.


Proper Processing of Hakarl is Very Important!


Greenland shark meat 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 eaten directly due to the presence of a large amount of trimethylamine oxide. This component is responsible for poisoning people and dogs when they eat it.


The shark meat is toxic because this shark has no kidneys, meaning ammonia and similar substances are present in the meat. This is why the right preparation of the meat is so important. The only way to make the meat able to eat is to boil it, dry it or ferment it for several months.



How is Shark Meat Processed in Iceland?


The traditional way to prepare Hakarl fermented shark meat involves first cleaning the meat properly. Then, all the unnecessary parts are removed. Traditionally, the shark meat was then placed in a sand or gravel pit. However, it is more common to use plastic boxes nowadays.


Once stored, the meat is left undisturbed for slow fermentation. The length of 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 hung on some special wooden bars to dry. This process can take up to 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.


How Do You Know When Hakarl is Ready to Eat?


Experts know when the fermentation process of Hakarl is done when the ammonia smell appears. This might give you a clue as to how Hakarl shark meat tastes; the fishy taste is very strong, and the ammonium is also noticeable. Hakarl taste is somewhat bitter and tart.


The strong, unique Hakarl taste and smell are not for everyone; it can definitely be described as an acquired taste! It’s hard to describe, but you’ll only know when you try it!



Where Can You Get Hakarl in Iceland?


Hakarl is easily accessible across Iceland. If you are renting a camper in Iceland, you can even make a Hakarl tour – that’s if you happen to like it, of course! You can get Hakarl in any supermarket, some Icelandic souvenir shops and some hotels also offer it for their guests’ tasting.


We highly recommend trying this Iceland shark meat dish in a restaurant to experience the best possible version of Hakarl. Restaurant-quality Hakarl can’t be compared to the versions sold in supermarkets, even if those are still tasty.


You can also delve into the intriguing world of Icelandic cuisine by embarking on a food tour that introduces you to this distinctive dish. Whether you're a foodie seeking new experiences or a traveler eager to embrace local traditions, a hákarl-focused food tour is an unforgettable adventure into the heart of Icelandic gastronomy.



Hakarl is traditionally enjoyed along with Brennivin, a traditional Iceland alcoholic drink. Most Icelanders say it makes the taste of Hakarl more bearable. Brennivin is made of fermented potatoes and caraway and literally means ‘burning wine’!


Best Places to Try Hakarl in Iceland


Looking for the best place to try this traditional rotten shark dish? It’s much tastier than it sounds, we promise!

  • The Icelandic Bar (Islenski Barinn). In Reykjavík, you’ll 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 Reykjavík.

  • Café Loki. Serving homemade traditional Icelandic food in the capital city, Café Loki is a popular choice for locals and tourists alike. Here, you can try this Iceland shark food dish for yourself.

  • The Viking Village Restaurant (Fjorukrain) – Dining in this amazing Viking restaurant is an experience in and of itself! This brilliant restaurant is only around a 20-minute drive from Reykjavík. It is certainly the perfect place to try Hakarl and other Icelandic delicacies.


Icelandic shark dish

How Much is the Fermented Shark in Iceland?


The cost of Hakarl depends on the place you’re 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 a few cubes can cost around $5 USD. Not the best idea for those who are traveling to Iceland on a 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 foods you should try.


Give Hakarl a Go During Your Iceland Adventure!


Ready to try something totally new? Sample some Hakarl for yourself on your once-in-a-lifetime Iceland adventure!


Let us help you get started planning your dream vacation. You can explore our range of campervan rentals in Iceland here, including campers, motorhomes and 4x4 campers, perfect for your Hakarl tour around Iceland!

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