I Tried the Icelandic Rotten Shark
Because transatlantic flights are expensive, the first leg of my journey back to Georgia involved an 11hr layover in Reykjavik on the way to London. It took us six hours to reach Iceland from Toronto. Sat in the middle seat the whole way I felt, and smelled, less than fresh upon landing. Nothing I did in Iceland improved that situation.
I was determined to go into town, despite my creeping exhaustion. So I marched out into the pitch darkness to drop off my bags at the car rental agency. In line, I met a woman named Stephanie—another Canadian—who had flown in for a short stay in Iceland and was renting a car. After only about three sentences of conversation she offered me a lift into town. The kindness of strangers.
An American guy, also in line at the Car Rental, piped into the conversation when I mentioned that I was thinking of trying something called Hákarl. “You should definitely try it,” he said, “It’s not as bad as everyone says.” If I had learned his name I might be cursing it today.
Hákarl is Greenland shark. Greenland shark live in extremely cold waters, and they’ve evolved massive deposits of ammonia in their flesh as a kind of antifreeze. Raw, or cooked, the Greenland shark is poisonous. To eat it, you have to rot it. Specifically, rot it underground for around two months, where the earth pushes out most of the toxic ammonia and bacteria take care of the rest. Then it’s hung to dry for a few more months before the Hákarl can be eaten.
So why, you ask, would I even consider trying the stuff? It sounds awful, but, I’m a lover of fermented foods, and fermented fish especially. So, finding myself in a place with a unique tradition of fermented fish, I thought I shouldn’t waste the chance. Plus I could officially call myself an Adventurous Eater.
Stephanie dropped me off in downtown Reykjavik, in the still-pitch darkness at 8am. Reykjavik, feels like a mixture of Copenhagen and Iqaluit—having been to neither city, I can say that with some authority. It’s replete with extremely hygge furniture and design shops but interspersed with stout, solitary buildings that feel purpose-built to survive the arctic winter. Nearly every home had a tiered candelabra in the window. In the midst of this darkness I started to understand why humans have festivals of light in the wintertime.
The sky was just beginning to lighten around half-past-ten when my stomach started to growl. I knew the hour of reckoning was upon me. So I made for Cafe Loki, a touristy restaurant for traditional food located across the street from the massive Hallgrímskirkja church. Sat in a room full of foreigners having breakfast, I ordered their Loki plate. It was three slices of rye bread, one topped with smoked trout, one with smoked lamb, and one with Plokkfiskur a stewed codfish and potato dish not unlike Bacalhau à Brás. On the side were a few pieces of dried cod and in the center, skewered to an Icelandic flag-topped toothpick were three little cubes of Hákarl, staring at me, saying “eat me, I’m Cultural.”
The trout, lamb, and Plokkfiskur were all delicious. The lamb was rich and worked surprisingly well with the smear of cheesy Icelandic butter below it. The trout was clean and not too smoky. The Plokkfiskur was everything I loved about my favourite Portuguese salt cod dishes, but fresher. They were all helped down by dense, dark, slightly tangy rye bread. They weren’t why I came to the restaurant.
I shouldn’t have smelled the first piece. I hadn’t put two and two together, not realizing that a regular aroma in anybody’s life is characterized by ammonia. In an eye-watering sniff I was reminded. Sense memory brought me to the bathrooms of the hardcore clubs in Toronto where I spent too much time as a teenager. Generously I’d say it smelled ‘uric.’ Ungenerously, it smelled like pee.
Tasted like it too.
I really don’t want to come off as too culturally insensitive here. Hákarl is a remarkable story of making something from nothing in the hardscrabble existence that was medieval Iceland. When the only fish you can find is poisonous, you find a way to eat it. It went nicely with the shot of caraway-flavoured Akvavit called Brennivín I ordered—or it really made me appreciate the overwhelming flavour of caraway.
I ate all three pieces, and did not acquire a taste for the stuff. But I had, otherwise, a lovely meal with an ‘interesting’ interlude. So if you find yourself with a long layover in Iceland—and you’ve not tried Hákarl yet—maybe give it a taste. If I’ve made it sound unappealing, try some Plokkfiskur, that stuff’s really good.