A Tale of Fermented Shark MeatIceland's Hákarl, up close & personal
You only need to have dabbled in Internet “Top 10” lists and adventure travel/foodie shows to have a vague knowledge of the phenomenon that is fermented shark meat. Known by “kæstur hákarl” in its native Iceland, this much maligned dish has always been on my radar, but never very high on my list to try. However, when you are literally driving by the world’s pre-eminent Rotting Shark Master™, you’d be a fool not to stop by his facility.
Our whirlwind Iceland research trip took us past the Bjarnarhöfn Shark Museum (Facebook page here) on the north coast of the Snæfellsnes peninsula. I had a few minutes and ample 3G on my phone to do a bit of quick research before we stopped by. I knew there was a “showroom” and samples–I was in. (Reading this fantastic blog on Bjarnarhöfn sealed the deal).
We pulled up to the museum on an early July afternoon at the same time as a local father and son (that’s a good sign, right?) The museum was ours to explore, although we’ve heard tell of busloads of visitors descending upon the industrial space. We were left to our own devices to explore the old maps, stuffed birds, and antique maritime knick-knacks, until Maria gave us a slide-show enhanced run-down of the process. (Maria, by the way, is one of the coolest people on the planet, a lovely young Italian woman in love with Russia and working in Iceland–you know, the usual.)
Want to know more about Greenland shark? Check out its online dating profile:
No bones about it (because I literally have none), I’m a gentle giant (measuring up to 20 feet long and weighing up to 2,500 lbs). I was built for comfort, not speed (top speeds are 1.6 mph). I’ve been around the block (can live up to 200 years) but I’m not superficial (prefers dark, deep, DEEP cold water). Looks are only skin deep (which I can’t see anyways because parasites have eaten my corneas). I’m not picky, I’ll eat whatever—seals, polar bears, moose, but also literally whatever’s lying around. Looking for positive people only: I have trouble processing toxicity in my life (no kidneys).
It’s that last part that makes all the difference. With no proper way to address waste in its system, the shark basically stews in its own urine for its whole life. (There is an Inuit legend that tells of an old woman who washed her hair in urine and dried it with a cloth; the cloth blew into the ocean to become the very first Greenland shark. That’s a helluvan origin story right there.) This concentration of urea and Trimethylamine N-oxide (a natural “antifreeze”) renders the sharks flesh poisonous. Lucky (?) for mankind, some stalwart foodies of yesteryear figured out how to “hack” shark meat in order to neutralize the toxins and chow down: let it rot.
Now, I take issue with that word, “rot.” For years I had an image of this green-black goo in my head whenever I read about this ‘crazy’ food Icelanders eat. Does this look rotten to you?
Here’s the magic recipe:
1) Cut the shark up.
2) Let it sit in boxes for a few months.
3) Take out of boxes.
4) Hang in a shed for a few more months.
After Maria’s slideshow, we were let loose on the samples. After all the build-up, it was a little unceremonious: one plastic cup of cut up hákarl, one wooden bowl of cut-up rye bread chunks, and one cup of toothpicks. It was seriously lacking in lasers, a fog machine, and synthesizers for such a momentous occasion.
Now, before we get to the taste, let me link to a few videos that showcase travel and food professionals absolutely losing their mind (in a bad way) about this dish. This is what worried me, knowing that people like Anthony Bourdain couldn’t even take it. But…..
What the hell, guys?
Short story: It’s fine.
Long story: I couldn’t smell the meat from a mile away. I couldn’t smell it from a couple feet away. Heck, I could barely smell it a few inches away. I tried it first by itself, a little white cube on the end of a toothpick. The first thing that hits you, of course, is the scent of ammonia. However, I grew up working with specialty cheeses, and the ammonia odor was nothing more extreme than a piece of brie waaaaaaay past its prime. The texture was firm but “creamy, as far as meat is concerned,” as BJ put it. It wasn’t flaky or fibrous, and reminded us very much of a firm cheese (even beyond the ammonia smell).
“If someone told me I had to eat it every day for the rest of my life, I’d be OK with that,” BJ said. “But I wouldn’t seek it out on my own. Rarely has something been so built up in my mind–good or bad–that was in reality so neutral.”
Pairing it with the rye bread negated much of the ammonia smell. While there was very little immediate taste to the shark, a stronger ammonia aftertaste developed and lingered. Still, neither of us understood the fuss, and we’re not particularly adventurous eaters. Sure, we’ll try local cuisine that may be considered weird in the U.S., but we don’t seek out (or particularly enjoy) odd food as a rule. However, we had to ask if there was anything harder.
In a potentially obnoxious (“Dude, bro, you got any hotter hot sauce?!”) but genuine query, we asked Kristján what the story was–if this was the mild version for tourists. He admitted it was on the mild end of the spectrum, so we asked (pretty please) if there was any personal stash around that might help us understand why people have such a strong reaction to this Icelandic delicacy. He made a phone call and disappeared into a side room, and then another, finally emerging with a new chunk of shark.
We stepped outside the front door and Kristján cut a generous slice from the center. BJ and I took a piece and gave it another go. BJ says that this piece was indeed stronger, but to me it just seemed more potent because it was a larger piece. However, the aftertaste had a much larger impact. It tasted (and felt) identical to the bleach I’ve been using on my hair for 20 years, a sort of hot, tingly, permeating, ammonia bomb. Delicious? Not exactly. Interesting? Sure. But revolting? Not by a long shot.
After the shark tasting, we walked up the hill to the open air barn where they let the shark age after fermentation. They make a slice in the sharks thick, sharp skin in order to hang it up on rows of nails. It might look like it’s been smoked, but that’s just a crust that forms during the aging process and it is removed before eating.
I have to say that I was disappointed that I don’t have a harrowing tale of how I narrowly escaped death via rancid shark meat. Honestly, it wasn’t didn’t even break the top 50 of the most unpleasant things I’ve ever eaten…like, you know, anything with cilantro in it. (Real talk: I’d rather eat rotten ammonia shark than cilantro, any day.)
I can’t wrap my brain around why all these so called “Celeb Chefs” take such exception to hákarl; my only theory is that they are more in tune to what properties rancid food has, and they are experiencing it through that lens, even if unconsciously. Or maybe 20 years of bleaching my hair and dealing in soft cheeses past their prime has given me a preternatural taste for ammonia (but then, what about BJ?) Either way, don’t believe the hype and if you find yourself on the Snæfellsnes peninsula, please go and say hello to Maria and Kristján!