The Mystery of Hakarl: Rotten Shark Meat Delicacy From Iceland

An Icelandic Treat

David Yuen

For the most part, it's against all common sense to eat anything rotten. Avoid rotten fruit at all cost. Spoiled milk--forget about it. And rotten meat--a definite no, no. But apparently in Iceland, things work a little differently around there, with all the harsh terrain and extreme conditions. In fact, when it comes to certain dish, things work very differently.

Hakarl, which is an Icelandic delicacy, is a dish that's served during the Icelandic midwinter festival, Thorrablot. Usually taken with a shot of "brennivin" (a strong spirit made from potatoes), this unique dish has been described by some to have a powerful "cheesy" flavor, while others have described it as the vilest thing they ever tasted, almost akin to solid urine. But it's not the unique taste of this delicacy that puts it on the map, but rather what it actually is--rotten shark meat.

Killed, gutted, and then boned (or more correctly "cartilaged"), a shark's flesh is divided into pieces, washed and then buried in a large hole with coarse gravel. This meat is then left to decay and rot in the pit for 6-8 weeks to a few months, depending on the season. Afterwards the meat is dug up, washed, and aired out in a drying shack for another 2-4 months. Once the curing process is done, the meat is taken, its brown crust is removed and the remaining whitish flesh is carved up into small pieces to be served.

Rotten meat as a dish is unique in and of itself since it defies what nearly every person has been raised to believe about guarding their health against spoiled food. So, inevitably, the question must be asked--why not eat fresh shark meat?

The reason for this is actually simple--fresh shark meat, from the sharks of that region, is poisonous. In Iceland the sharks that are predominant are Greenland sharks, which do not have urinary tracts and, therefore, must secrete their urine from their skin. As a result, high amounts of uric acid become so concentrated in the shark that eating even some of it can potentially cause people to vomit blood. By allowing the shark to fully decay and be cured the acid is removed from the flesh, thus making it easier to digest.

So, ironically, by allowing meat to go bad, it actually becomes "good". How the Icelanders stumbled upon this discovery brings many possible scenarios come to mind--a stranded traveler desperate for food stumbling on old meat, an inventive fisherman discovering ways to make Greenland shark edible by trial and error, and so on and so forth. Whatever the case, no one may ever know. But one thing's for sure, for all you adventurous foodies out there, this would be your Everest!

Published by David Yuen

David Yuen is a first generation Asian-American who was born and raised in NJ. He has been writing for over 10 years and he is currently a data manager in the Biotech Industry.  View profile

2 Comments

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  • Kathleen 8/8/2013

    I have just been told by people way smarter and better informed than I: the idea that these sharks don't have a urinary tract is a misconception. They do have a urinary tract but just have a higher ammonia/urea content in their skin, which makes them smell like #$%$.

  • GHIGGS 6/1/2013

    You Can Count Me Out!

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