Iceland is a country that is extraordinarily rich in natural beauty – a place where water, fire, stone, and ice meet in beautiful unison. This beautiful land has also proven to be difficult to live in, and the people who managed to tame the wild land had to find inventive ways to find food, and under such conditions, some strange dishes have been born. The strangest of all has to be hákarl. Hákarl is also known as putrid shark, and there’s good reason for that. The Icelandic delicacy is made over several months by fermenting shark meat into a dish that is truly an acquired taste. There’s a reason why the locals in Iceland have been munching on pungent shark meat for generations, and here at Dr. Foodle, we’re going to explore why this strange dish is so essential to the region.
Hákarl is made from the Greenland shark, and there’s a pretty good reason why they don’t eat the flesh fresh. The Greenland shark doesn’t have a liver, and as a result, its tissue is just packed full of toxins that are poisonous to eat. However, food is hard to find in Iceland, and the Greenland shark isn’t only a large animal; it’s also extremely slow and sluggish, making it a very easy hunt. This easy-to-catch source of protein and nutrients was too good to pass up, so the locals figured out a way to get rid of the toxins and make a preserved meat that could help them get through the winter months.
Hákarl is prepared by first catching a Greenland shark. Once the animal has been slaughtered, a hole is dug in the ground, which the shark is placed in and then covered in dirt, gravel, and stones. The weight of the earth on top of the shark causes all the poisonous fluids to drain out of the meat over several weeks. It also ferments while it’s buried, as opposed to rotting, which is key in making the food edible. The fermented shark is then dug up, cut into strips, and hung on a drying rack where it’s left to dry for six months. It would usually be finished drying for the winter months when food became even scarcer.
The taste of hákarl is not for the faint of heart. The meat reeks of ammonia is faintly similar to rotten cheese and fills the air full of the odor of cleaning chemicals. For most people, being in a room with some hákarl would be enough to make their stomachs churn. The actual flavor is very fishy and tinged with ammonia. Thanks to the appearance of some strange chemicals in the dish, if eaten in large amounts, it can actually make the consumer feel drunk. This effect has led to Icelandic locals using the term “shark drunk” when feeling intoxicated from the meat.
While this isn’t a conventional, or even remotely appealing, dish, it really is a testament to how clever people are. Regardless of the environment, people have always found dense sources of nutrients in the most unlikely of places, and hákarl is a testament to that. While hákarl may seem strange, it’s actually a great source of protein and various other minerals and vitamins that are hard to come by in the region. Even the process of preparing hákarl is ingenious, as it extracts the toxins from the poisonous flesh while simultaneously preserving it for the long winter. Food is always a great example of how people have always made the environment work for them.