Dish of the day: decomposed shark
Where: Traditional of Artic Circle countries, popular as a trendy dish in Iceland
Serving Suggestion: Decompose for 6 months, then swallow raw with a strong swig of spirits
Taste: Cheesy, strong flavoured and a little ‘off’
Other dishes: Pickled lambs heads and ram testicle cakes
Iceland is rapidly becoming a popular destination for travellers, and with this growing tourist trade comes an inevitable slate of pricey new restaurants serving international cuisine. So rest assured you’re not about to be stranded in Iceland with only a putrefying shark for company, but let’s face it, no-one goes to an exotic destination without even trying the local speciality..do they?
Steel yourself. Remember that this close to the Arctic Circle food options were limited for centuries, and some quite unusual dishes have evolved out of necessity. Mouldy shark is definitely one of the most challenging meals an intrepid traveller will ever have to face.
Origins and History
Until the latter half of the 20th century, Icelanders had no means of preserving food except salting, smoking it, soaking it in mysa (whey) or just going with nature and allowing it to rot for so long that the decomposition process comes to an end. Not surprisingly, traditional Icelandic food is rather strong-tasting!
Thorrablot is the Icelandic midwinter festival which takes place towards the end of January, the harshest of the winter months. It’s a Thorrablot traditional to prepare foods which would have been eaten a hundred years ago, using only the original methods of preservation from the days when people had to do without refrigerators. It certainly makes for an interesting feast, if only so you can regale your friends with tales of how you survived a close encounter with a shark and came off better than the other guy.
Shark meat is buried for between two and six months, until it has reached just the right stage of decomposition. It’s known as hakarl, and is a real treat for steely stomached Icelanders.
If you’re new to hakarl, hold your nose: this will really sort the men from the boys. Some say it tastes cheesy, some say they just swallowed it in one gulp…but most have lived to tell the tale. Just make sure you have a shot of brennivin to hand, a strong Icelandic spirit made from potatoes, to wash it down. And don’t eat it before an important date, harkal and halitosis go hand in hand.
The shark is not the only animal to be subjected to Iceland’s strange ideas about delicacies. Here are some other dishes you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else on earth:
Svió – lambs head charred in the fire to singe off hair, then boiled and served either fresh or pickled. Can also be mashed up and soured in mysa to make a kind of pate.
Hrútspungur – ram’s testicles pickled in mysa and moulded into little cakes
Slátur – black pudding stitched inside a lamb’s stomach, rather like Scottish haggis.
By Jess Halliday