It all started a few years ago when my friend Geoff told me about hákarl for the first time. I think it began with a conversation about surströmming and continued on to include hákarl and rakfisk and all kinds of foul stuff…it’s only fair. It wasn’t until I went to Iceland in January 2014 did I remember the word hákarl, or well, more like I was reminded of it by Geoff. “Bring some back home!” was his request…if possible, of course. And it was possible. And it happened.
“What is hákarl?” you ask. Well it turns out that our Nordic friends have some very…unique taste buds. While the Swedish have fermented herring in an explosive can (that would be your surströmming) and the Norwegian have their fermented trout (rakfisk), the Icelandic people have, you guessed it, fermented shark. Oh, you want to know more? You see, the hákarl is known for its putrefied odour and distinct, foul taste. We take a shark, cut off its head and remove its guts, and bury it underground for 6 weeks or more. Afterwards, the now fermented shark is cut and hung to dry for another several months before being cut into small sugar cube-like pieces, becoming the beauty that is hákarl. Ahh, sounds appetizing, doesn’t it?
So then I went to Iceland and had the time of my life. Just as I was about to walk to the gate at the airport where I would board a plane that’d take me safely back to Toronto, I remembered that request. I didn’t want to have to face it. I had avoided hákarl all the while in Reykjavik but at that very moment I thought…what if, just what if they sell it here at the airport and what if…I could actually bring some back to Canada? That would probably please my friend Geoff, but there is no doubt that I would be coerced into trying it, an experience that I wasn’t too keen on having. What to do? What to do?
It wouldn’t hurt to ask, I thought, and so I asked a lady working at the airport whether any of the stores sold “ha-KARL”. That was how I pronounced it, which explains why the lady looked confused and took a while to understand what I meant. Apparently the word was pronounced “HOW-kerk” in Icelandic, hah! As I was getting ready for her to reply “no” and sigh a sigh of relief, lo and behold she said, “Yes, in the Icelandic specialty shop!” She promptly pointed me in the direction of the store and told me that I’d be able to find all sorts of traditional Icelandic foods there, including hákarl. Oops.
NOW I’VE DONE IT. Now that I’ve found out that they indeed did sell hákarl at the store (and I found it quite easily), there was no way I was leaving without getting a frozen container. I think there were moments of hesitation and contemplation, but then I remembered Geoff’s famous motto of “do now, regret later”, and with the attitude and the spirit of “why the heck not?” (thanks Waterloo), checked it out at the cash register. Deed done. There was no turning back.
I expressed to the cashier that I was worried about the smell leaking in the plane cabin as I would be on a 7-hour flight, and the frozen hákarl will definitely thaw during that time. I didn’t want the smell of ammonia to fill the plane causing a crisis, so I had to take every precaution I could to prevent the possibility of it happening. The cashier seemed to understand my paranoia and happily proceeded to wrap my container of frozen hákarl in five layers of plastic bags, finishing off with a very tight knot and placing it in a final bag. That would have been alright, I hoped. I asked how long the hákarl would last in the freezer and she replied in the tone of a joke, “Quite a while, but it’s rotten anyway, so it doesn’t really matter.” WELL PLAYED. Not sure if I should be worried or not.
With the shiny bag in front of me in the airport waiting area, I had a very intense inner monologue. A bit distressed with a twisted feeling of anticipation, I thought, “This thing is a ticking time bomb, probably a very smelly one. I’m hoping it doesn’t cause any trouble during my 7-hour flight. There is a garbage bin nearby. I could still do it. And I realize all of this nonsense monologue is very strange, but this is probably the only time in my life that a white plastic bag would stress me out this much. Will this even get through customs? I’ll try, or get arrested. Worst case they confiscate it. Man if I go to jail because of this…lawl.”
Not a moment passed by during my flight without me pondering the state of the hákarl, which was tucked snugly in my backpack and placed in the overhead storage. In my mind the thawing shark would release liquid as it warmed up, and if I didn’t tie the knot well enough, then the liquid would leak and the potent odour would diffuse through the plane and…ahh! Emergency! OK I admit I had an imaginative mind, but you can’t blame me – I’ve heard too many “interesting” stories and seen too many Youtube videos of people eating hákarl that I was paranoid to the max. But it made it. The container of hákarl, which was still in my backpack when I got home, made it to Toronto. No smell, no leak, no hassle, just me against the hákarl.
Oh, I forgot to mention that I also bought a bottle of Brennivin, which is Icelandic liquor that often accompanies hákarl. Brennivin is supposed to be quite potent itself as an alcohol, and it would make perfect sense to use it to wash down the hákarl, if you don’t end up puking both of them out. Of course this bottle, along with the entire container of hákarl, was for my friend Geoff, who was all too delighted to hear that the “goods” have made it safely back to the home base. The next step is to store the hákarl in my freezer until it was time to bring it to Waterloo for Geoff. I warned my family members NOT to open the container under any circumstances, and tucked it in the corner as if it was some sort of chemical weapon. I must have been the most ridiculous person to ever have dealt with hákarl. Go on, laugh at me, my Icelandic friends 🙂
The day I went to Waterloo was a relief for me because I finally got to get rid of the food bomb that had been hiding in my freezer for about three weeks. That was the good news – the bad news was that I would probably have to try it with Geoff. I guess I could have insisted that I was not interested, but (1) that would have been a n00b move, and (2) fine, I was curious too. Here’s Geoff, finally appearing in the blog for the first time (I think), happily receiving his precious gift and opening it with utmost anticipation. Not gonna lie, but up till that point I still thought that the foul smell would burst out as soon as he opened the bag.
It might have taken a while because there were five layers of plastic bags, but we released the container of hákarl and finally, it was allowed to breathe. Last time it was free, it was on European soil, and three weeks later, it was being appreciated as a “delicacy” in a Canadian home. Honestly though, if you didn’t know what hákarl was, it looked innocent enough. Not taking into consideration the colour of the meat, the shape of it looked like regular sugar cubes that you would dissolve in your morning cup of coffee. Fermentation? Ammonia? You’ve gotta be kidding. This was the little container that stressed me out so much? Yeah, I officially deserve to be made fun of. Anyway, the fact that Geoff was able to hold the container in his hands without suffocating us both meant that the feared spreading of the potent smell didn’t happen. Or did it smell THAT bad to begin with? Maybe the people on Youtube were exaggerating…???
Alright, it’s time to go head to head against the boss. Before you taste anything, you should always smell it first (not exactly the best advice or practice in a chemistry lab). Hákarl is of course no exception, and the smell test would be able to decide whether my paranoia all this time was justified or not. Slowly and surely Geoff lifted the hákarl toward his notice and with carefully sniffed around the edge of the container. Hmm. Nothing yet. That was a sign that it was safe to open…perhaps? And so the container was opened, finally! I’m not sure if I was more relieved or disappointed that no strong smell came gushing out, but it turns out that you only smell the ammonia-like odour if you put your nose right up to the hákarl. But then…it smelled REALLY strong. Like…REALLY strong. The one sentence that sums it up pretty accurate would be “It smells like piss.” If that doesn’t give you an idea of what we were about to eat, then I don’t know what would.
The moment of truth arrived when Geoff provided toothpicks for us to finally dig into this delicacy that had me troubled for quite some time. Again, it would seem just like you were eating a sugar cube if you weren’t aware of the circumstances, and we might as well have imagined it to be a sugar cube just to give ourselves some hope and to minimize the suffering. In retrospect, that was a REALLY huge piece that Geoff took. I’m not sure if he dug around to find the biggest piece in the container, but kudos, my friend, you have my respect.
Nom nom nom nom nom. Five seconds passed after the hákarl entered Geoff’s mouth. Ten seconds. Twenty seconds. Maybe thirty. Or maybe time just froze right then and there. All I remember was Geoff saying, “It’s not as bad as expected,” which was quite a reassurance for me. Then again, I think even Geoff was so overwhelmed by the amount of rottenness in his mouth that he had to raise an arm to surrender to the shark. Well done, Icelandic people.
So that was the end of the story!!! Ugh how I hoped it was, but happily ever afters only happen in fairy tales. You guessed it – it was my turn. There was no point in negotiation or trying to avoid it. Before the deed, though, Geoff offered to make some tea so that I would have something to wash down the hákarl in case it got uh…stuck in my throat or something. Thanks Geoff, very considerate of you. With a warm cup of tea in my hand (which was perfect on its own as I had just entered the house from the sub-zero exterior), I embraced destiny and picked up a piece of fermented shark with a toothpick. Of course I was nowhere as courageous as Geoff was – the size of my piece was probably one fifth of what Geoff ate, as a rough estimate. But that was enough. That was MORE than enough. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and put the tiny piece of meat into my mouth. I can’t remember if I chewed it or not, but if I were to guess, I must have chewed it at least a bit. Well, until I couldn’t endure the smell and taste anymore, that is…
Yeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah. So the experience was interesting. Honestly though, the hákarl itself was not nearly as bad in terms of taste as what people have said on the internet, including Youtube. Then again, I did only take a very tiny piece, so it probably wasn’t representative of the true power of the hákarl. However, the tiny piece already did its harm. Not so much the taste, but the AFTER-taste and after-odour, if such a thing existed, was horrifying. You see, that smell of piss was no joke. I think I felt like I was chewing pee in solid form as the odour spread from my mouth into my throat, into my nose, into my breath…ugh!!! It was definitely hard to swallow, but spitting it out was not an option, so I took a big gulp and flushed down the foulness in one shot (of tea). I had to drink a lot of tea to try to get rid of the aftertaste but here’s the thing: it never went away! I think the aftertaste and the sensation of piss in my mouth stayed with me for a good half a day. It certainly felt like the piece that I swallow did indeed get stuck in my throat as it was going down, and the smell persisted even well into dinner (or was it lunch…I forgot). There were times when I would cough or sneeze…and oh man all hell broke loose as the aftermath OVERWHELMED my senses. I felt like I was coughing up ammonia, or gassy piss…you get the idea -_-
And that, folks, was my first experience with hákarl, and hopefully the last. I don’t envision myself eating it again, and if I do go to Iceland again in the future (which I fully intend to) with someone who asks that I try it with him/her, I will kindly decline. If he/she insists…then I will decline, even if I have to be RUDE!!! If you intend to try it out yourself, while I have the utmost respect for you for being brave enough to even take on the challenge, all I can tell you is…good luck, and please be safe.