Iceland’s Wild Culinary Traditions: Hákarl + Brennivín
No trip to Iceland is complete without sampling one of Iceland’s most unusual culinary delicacies: hákarl (putrefied shark), washed down with a glass of Iceland’s signature firewater, Brennivín.
Hákarl, also known as Putrefied Shark
Hákarl (or kæstur hákarl) is perhaps Iceland’s most infamous traditional delicacy. This eye-popping blast to the palate will drive tears to your eyes, and likely cause your gag reflex to flare up at first bite. Most commonly served with toothpicks as bite-sized cubes resembling cheese, these harmless looking babies reveal no hint of the overpowering aroma that awaits adventurous foodies.
Hákarl’s distinct ammonia-heavy scent is reminiscent of rotten cheese mixed with industrial-grade cleaning products. Moist, with a fishy texture and a consistency slightly akin to bamboo shoots, this pungent dish packs a serious punch. Said to be an acquired taste even for Icelanders, brave travelers can try pinching their noses to take the shock value down a notch, but they’ll still have to contend with the strong ammonia aftertaste that lingers as a result of tasting even the tiniest morsel.
Why the Serious Stink?
This notorious Viking staple is actually rotten Greenlandic shark. Due to an absence of kidneys, Greenlandic shark meat contains highly toxic levels of ammonia and uric acid. Yet Icelanders, never ones to waste food, somehow devised an unusual method of purifying poisonous shark meat.
The Traditional Curing Process
The process of preparing hákarl for Icelandic tables takes approximately half a year and begins with placing the shark meat in a shallow outdoor hole in the ground, covered with sand and gravel. This presses the meat, which allows the toxins to seep out over time. (There’s also a modern curing method, in which the shark meat is simply piled into a container with a drain hole.) The meat is then left to ferment for 6-8 weeks, the exact length of time depending on the season.
After all this, the meat is dug up and hung up in strips to dry inside a drying shack with enough ventilation to let the wind through. The meat cures for several more months, until half a year later, it’s finally ready to go. The outer brown crust formed in the process is removed, and shark connoisseurs the world over will find this specialty readily-available year-round in supermarkets and restaurants all across Iceland.
Brennivín, Iceland’s Signature Firewater
The best way to sample hákarl is to pair it with chilled Brennivín, an Icelandic schnapps made from potatoes whose name translates literally as “wine that burns.” Despite its ominous nick-name, “black death” (svarti dauði), this nearly 80-proof clear liquor is surprisingly delightful, albeit tongue-numbingly strong, and goes down velvety smooth with a hint of caraway seeds. It’s the perfect palate cleanser, and one of the only things strong enough to wash away the aftertaste of hákarl.
When in Iceland…
If you find yourself in Iceland, be sure not to pass up the one of a kind experience of sampling hákarl. Icelandic cuisine embodies a delicate balance of culinary artistry while remaining hardy and elemental in a fashion that is poetically symbolic of Iceland’s Viking heritage, which continues to characterize the spirit of this uniquely beautiful and rugged volcanic nation.