The small cube of white fish on the end of the toothpick looked harmless enough. I gently plopped the sample of fermented shark into my mouth and hesitantly chewed it once. Twice. And a third time.
The first chew was just a little rubbery with not too much taste. But by the third chomp, a distinct ammonia flavor suddenly developed, hitting the back of my throat and expanding into my sinuses. I quickly swallowed the partially masticated lump and followed it with a slug of clear Icelandic Brennivin liquor, nicknamed “Black Death”. The burn from the caraway-flavored spirit helped to remove the lingering ammonia taste, but now my mouth and throat were aflame from the alcohol. A small piece of hearty, dark brown rye bread finally neutralized what remained of my taste buds.
Each country and each culture has its unique cuisine. Pasta from Italy, sushi from Japan, and tacos from Mexico are foods that have transcended their borders and are now eaten all over the globe. However, some foods are appreciated only by the culture where they originate. I think fermented shark, or hakarl as it is called in Iceland, is one such delicacy.
Famous food personality Anthony Bourdain referred to fermented shark as the “single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he’d ever tried – certainly not an inspiring recommendation. Still, when my Iceland ProCruises tour took us to the Bjarnarhöfn Shark Museum, I decided to be brave and give this unique delicacy a try. After all, I travel to get out of my comfort zone and to expand my horizons.
Learning about the Greenland shark
At the shark museum I learned all about the shark fermentation process with the aid of a video and our English speaking museum guide. In this case, the shark species is the predatory Greenland shark, which makes its home in the cold depths of the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans.
Reaching a potential length of 23 feet and 3000 pounds, this is one of the largest shark species on the planet. It is also one of the longest-living vertebrate species, with a possible lifespan of almost 400 years or even longer. It does not reach sexual maturity until about 150 years of age. The Greenland shark is still somewhat of a scientific mystery as researchers continue to try and learn more about its lifecycle and behavior.
Before synthetic oil became available, the Greenland shark was hunted for its liver oil. Today it is taken only as a bycatch, as fishing boats take in hauls of other fish species. Our guide told us that Icelanders no longer actively fish for Greenland sharks and that the samples we were tasting were indeed an accidental catch product.
The Greenland shark prefers near-freezing water temperatures. They may be found as deep as 7000 feet below sea level in the summer. To survive the cold and the pressure at such depths, a Greenland shark’s metabolism produces trimethyl amine N-oxide (TMAO). High concentrations of this compound keep the shark’s cells from bursting under pressure and keep them from freezing. At the same time, it also makes the untreated shark flesh very toxic for human consumption.
How to make fermented shark
About 400 years ago in Icelandic history, locals discovered that if the shark meat was fermented and then dried, the toxic effects of TMAO were eliminated. The processing starts when the shark is cut up into approximately two-foot-long strips of meat with the skin left on. A handle is cut into the skin to make it easier to lift and carry such huge hunks of flesh.
The raw meat chunks are densely packed three feet deep into crates and aged for about six to nine weeks. During this time natural bacteria and enzymes break down the TMAO chemicals with ammonia as one of the main byproducts. Then, each fillet is hung outside in open-air drying sheds for an additional six months. When the shark is ready to eat, the outside is covered in a dry, brownish-tan crust. The inside meat is soft, white, and flaky. And, apparently, tasty by Icelandic standards.
I can’t help but wonder how such an involved process for producing edible food was discovered. Or, more likely, stumbled upon. What level of starvation or desperation led someone to try this? And then, who was the guinea pig to take that first taste test to determine if the meat still made them sick? If I was hungry enough, would I be willing to try fermented shark for the first time in order to survive?
Though small, the Bjarnarhöfn Shark Museum was a fascinating stop on my excursion around Iceland’s Snaefellsnes Peninsula. This family-run enterprise has been in the shark “business” for over 400 years. Along with demonstrating how fermented shark was made, the Shark Museum also presented all the historic paraphernalia once used for fishing, catching, and processing the Greenland shark.
Authentic experiences with Iceland ProCruises
As I discovered on my nine-day circumnavigation cruise, such authentic cultural encounters were a hallmark of my Iceland ProCruises tour. Owned by an Icelander and staffed with local Icelandic guides, my cruise itinerary was filled with many unique moments that would have been difficult to experience on my own.
Other aspects of Icelandic cuisine were also a prominent feature on the ship. An Icelandic chef headed the kitchen staff and each meal included examples of locally sourced products and dishes. I almost always chose the seafood dish at dinner. I knew the fish had been swimming somewhere nearby earlier in the day.
Later in the cruise, I had a second chance to try fermented shark. The staff put on a special celebration on the ship’s sun deck as we sailed past the Arctic Circle at sunset. The party snacks included a tray of fermented shark and a bottle of Brennivin. This time I tried it the Icelandic way, by first dunking my shark cube in the alcohol. I can’t say this second tasting was any better than the first. Clearly, Iceland’s national treat is an acquired taste that will most likely not travel beyond its borders.
Disclosure: My trip was hosted by Iceland ProCruises. All content and opinions are my own.