Hákarl is the Icelandic Delicacy Gordon Ramsay Can't Stomach

Visiting a new country always means new sights, sounds, flavors, and aromas. When it comes to Iceland, you can make that "stenches." Hákarl is a national dish of Iceland that has brought the likes of Anthony Bourdain and Gordon Ramsay to their knees. Why? It's essentially rotten Greenland shark.

One Man's Trash

Icelanders don't eat rancid meat just to prove they can. The tradition of Hákarl goes back centuries to when Vikings settled the Arctic island. Greenland shark was plentiful and quickly became a dietary staple. The only problem? Greenland shark meat is toxic.

Sharks, like all cartilaginous fishes, contain high concentrations of urea. Urea is a byproduct of protein breakdown that shows up in pretty much all animals, including humans, but most other animals excrete it as a waste product like urine. Sharks don't. Instead, they retain the urea to keep the fluids in their bodies at the same salt concentration as the water around them. But because urea is toxic, they balance it out with high levels of a compound called trimethylamine oxide (TMAO) — the chemical that breaks down into that telltale fishy smell after a few days in the fridge. All sharks have both compounds, but for some reason, Greenland shark contains them at much higher concentrations.

So right off the bat, your Greenland shark steak has high levels of a toxic chemical that smells like pee and another chemical that smells like old fish. How do you make the meat safe to eat? Counterintuitively, you leave it out to rot.

Dine if You Dare

After cutting up the massive shark — they can grow to be more than 15 feet (5 meters) long — producers leave the meat to ferment for 6–12 weeks. Traditionally, this was done in a hole underneath heavy stones, but these days most producers use plastic bins that allow them to keep an eye on the process. That helps the toxic compounds seep out of the meat, making it safer for consumption.

After the initial "curing" process, producers hang the meat to dry for several months. According to World Atlas, "Many hákarl preparers claim they know the meat is ready just by the smell and once a characteristic dry, brown crust forms." Delightful.

Finally, it's ready to eat. Many outsiders have dared sample the stuff: Anthony Bourdain called it "unspeakably nasty" and said, "This is probably the single worst thing I have ever put in my mouth." Gordon Ramsay couldn't stomach it and had to spit it into a bucket at his table.

Others, however, don't see what the fuss is about. "Yes, it was a struggle to keep the shark down in the presence of fiercely nationalistic Icelanders," writes Jenna Blumenfeld of The Expeditioner, "but when I tried it, the hákarl was actually somewhat sweet and initially there isn't much taste ... it's the aftertaste that lingers pungently."

Whether you like it or detest it, though, hákarl is much more than a daring novelty. It's an important tie to the past for a centuries-old culture.

For more bizarre delicacies from around the world, check out "Andrew Zimmern's Field Guide to Exceptionally Weird, Wild, and Wonderful Foods." We handpick reading recommendation we think you'll like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity gets a share of the sale.

Rotten Shark for Dinner

Written by Ashley Hamer January 31, 2018

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