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Hákarl – fermented meat of a poisonous shark that tastes like urine-soaked mattress

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Posted November 18, 2019

Would you eat meat of a poisonous shark? No? But what if it tasted disgusting and had almost no nutritional value? Still no? Well, thousands of people in Iceland eat Hákarl regularly and are happy about it.

Hákarl is literally a fermented shark. And not just a random shark, but a  Greenland shark, which is poisonous when fresh. Preparation of Hákarl is actually not that difficult, but it takes long months before the meat of the shark can be served to the table.

Strips of Hákarl drying – this can take several months. Image credit: Chris 73 via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The meat of the Greenland shark is poisonous due to a high content of urea and trimethylamine oxide. It is edible though, if it is prepared right. Most of these poisonous compounds can be found in the body fluids of the shark. This means that if fluids are drained from the meat, it is safe to consume it. And that is what Icelandic people do.

This is a traditional way to produce Hákarl – have that in mind. At first the shark is cleaned, its gut and head are removed. Then the meat is buried in a shallow hole in the sand. Several rocks are put on top of it to squeeze all the liquids out. Meat is left in this hole for several months. Why? Because it needs to ferment or, as tourists say, to rot.

Then the shark is dug out and cut into strips. The last stage of Hákarl production is very simple – strips of shark meat are left to dry for several more months. During that time a disgusting brown crust will develop, which typically is removed before consumption. Gross, right?

Of course, this process is too involved for mass production. This is why Hákarl that is sold in supermarkets is made completely differently. Shark meat, of course, is still fermented, but instead of being buried in the sand it is squeezed between two plastic plates. Achieves the same thing, but Icelandic people say that there is a difference in flavour.

A package of Hákarl in the store in Iceland. Image credit: Jóhann Heiðar Árnason via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Then there is the flavour. Hákarl is typically served diced into cubes with some toothpicks used as utensils. What does it taste like? Well, the late famous chef Anthony Bourdain described it as “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he had ever eaten. Another famous TV chef Ainsley Harriott said it is “like chewing a urine-infested mattress”. Meanwhile chef Gordon Ramsay just spat it out almost immediately.

The problem is high ammonia content and chewy texture. Even Icelandic people say that you have to get used to it. They themselves eat Hákarl when drinking their local spirit, a type of akvavit called brennivín.

Of course, Hákarl is dropping down in popularity. Tourists, especially those who enjoy some extreme adventures, still try it, but younger Icelandic people eat it less and less. The conservation status of the Greenland shark is “Near threatened” (just one step ahead of “Least concern”), which makes it ok to catch them for food. Still, in the abundance of food that we have, Hákarl has very little appeal.

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