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Eating Rotten Shark In Iceland


Modified: December 28, 2023

by Dotti Mcswain



Food travel is an exciting journey that allows you to explore different cultures, traditions, and flavors around the world. One fascinating aspect of food travel is discovering unique and sometimes unconventional dishes that are deeply rooted in local heritage. One such dish that captures the imagination and curiosity of food enthusiasts is rotten shark.


Rotten shark is a traditional Icelandic delicacy that has been enjoyed for centuries. This peculiar dish, known as “hákarl” in Icelandic, involves fermenting Greenland shark meat and letting it decompose for several months. While the thought of consuming rotten flesh may seem unappetizing to some, it is a fascinating culinary experience that offers a glimpse into the rich cultural history of Iceland.


Traveling to Iceland and partaking in the ritual of eating rotten shark is not just about tasting unique flavors, but also about immersing oneself in the traditions and stories that surround this ancient practice. From the preparation process to the cultural significance of the dish, every aspect of eating rotten shark is steeped in tradition and folklore.


So, let’s embark on a gastronomic adventure and delve into the world of rotten shark, exploring its preparation, distinctive taste, cultural significance, and the controversies surrounding this intriguing delicacy.


The Tradition of Eating Rotten Shark

The tradition of eating rotten shark in Iceland dates back to the time when preserving food was a necessity in the harsh Arctic conditions. Greenland sharks, which inhabit the cold waters surrounding Iceland, were traditionally hunted for their meat. However, due to the high ammonia content in their flesh, it was inedible when consumed fresh.


To make the shark meat suitable for consumption, the ancient Icelanders developed a unique preservation method. The process involves burying the shark meat in shallow sand pits and leaving it to decompose for several months. During this period, the high levels of urea and trimethylamine oxide present in the shark’s flesh break down into ammonia, effectively purifying the meat.


Once the fermentation process is complete, the meat is hung to dry for a few months, further reducing its moisture content. The resulting product, known as hákarl, is then cut into small cubes and served as a traditional delicacy.


The tradition of eating rotten shark is deeply ingrained in Icelandic culture and is often associated with special occasions and celebrations. It is commonly consumed during the midwinter festival of Þorrablót, a time when Icelanders come together to celebrate their heritage and enjoy traditional foods.


Furthermore, hákarl holds significant historical value for Icelanders. In the past, it was highly prized for its ability to sustain life during long voyages and periods of food scarcity. It also served as a symbol of strength and resilience in the face of adversity, embodying the indomitable spirit of the Icelandic people.


Today, hákarl continues to be a part of Icelandic identity and is a must-try for adventurous food travelers. While its pungent odor and acquired taste may not be for everyone, the tradition of eating rotten shark offers a unique glimpse into the culinary heritage and resourcefulness of the Icelandic people.


Preparation and Preservation of Rotten Shark

The preparation and preservation of rotten shark is a meticulous and time-consuming process that requires precision and expertise. The goal is to transform the inedible fresh shark meat into a palatable delicacy. Let’s explore the steps involved in preparing and preserving this intriguing Icelandic dish.


The first step in the process is the selection of the shark. Greenland sharks, commonly found in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic, are the preferred choice due to their abundance in Icelandic waters. Once a shark is caught, it is gutted and beheaded on the spot to minimize spoilage.


The next step involves burying the shark meat in sand or gravel, allowing it to undergo fermentation. The shark is traditionally placed in a shallow pit, covered with gravel, and then weighed down with stones to facilitate the decomposition process. The pit is then secured to prevent any animals from disturbing the process.


Over the course of several weeks to a few months, the shark meat ferments as enzymes break down proteins into simpler compounds. The temperature and humidity levels are carefully monitored throughout this period to ensure optimal conditions for the fermentation process.


Once the fermentation process is complete, the rotten shark is unearthed from its burial site and cut into long strips. Then, it is hung to dry for a few months in a well-ventilated area. This drying stage helps to reduce the moisture content, enhancing the preservation and intensifying the flavor.


After the drying process, the shark is ready to be consumed. It is traditionally served in small, bite-sized cube-shaped pieces alongside Icelandic rye bread and a shot of the country’s signature liquor, Brennivín, to accompany the pungent flavors.


It’s important to note that preparing rotten shark at home is not recommended, as the process requires specific knowledge to ensure the meat is safe to consume. Therefore, it is best to experience this delicacy at reputable restaurants or during cultural festivals where it is prepared by experts following traditional methods.


The careful preparation and preservation of rotten shark is a testament to the resourcefulness and ingenuity of the Icelandic people. Their ability to transform an otherwise inedible meat into a unique delicacy showcases their deep connection with their natural surroundings and their commitment to preserving traditional culinary practices.


The Distinctive Taste of Rotten Shark

The taste of rotten shark, or hákarl, is an acquired one that is not for the faint of heart. The long fermentation and drying process gives the meat a distinct flavor profile that sets it apart from any other culinary experience. Let’s explore the unique taste sensations associated with eating rotten shark.


One of the first things you’ll notice when biting into a piece of hákarl is the pungent and overwhelmingly strong smell. The fermentation process produces a highly ammonia-rich aroma that can be quite overpowering. This odor has been described as a combination of strong cheese, ammonia, and rotting fish. However, it’s important to remember that the smell of hákarl doesn’t necessarily reflect its taste.


When it comes to the flavor, hákarl is an acquired taste that can vary from person to person. The meat itself is chewy and has a texture similar to that of dried fish. As for the taste, it has been described as incredibly salty, fishy, and with a hint of ammonia. The high ammonia content gives the meat a tangy, slightly sharp taste that lingers on the palate.


For those unaccustomed to the taste of rotten shark, the first bite can be quite challenging. However, some adventurous food lovers find themselves developing a fondness for this unique delicacy. They appreciate the complex flavors and the experience of indulging in a centuries-old tradition.


It’s worth noting that hákarl is best enjoyed when paired with traditional Icelandic accompaniments. The sharpness and saltiness of the meat are often balanced with bites of Icelandic rye bread and sips of Brennivín, an Icelandic schnapps. The combination of flavors enhances the overall tasting experience and acts as a counterbalance to the intense flavors of the rotten shark.


While the taste of rotten shark might not be for everyone, it is undoubtedly a distinctive experience that can leave a lasting impression. Trying it for the first time evokes a sense of adventure and provides a glimpse into the cultural history and culinary traditions of Iceland.


So, if you’re a daring food traveler in search of unique flavors and experiences, including rotten shark in your culinary exploration is a must. Just remember to approach it with an open mind and be ready for a taste sensation like no other.


Cultural Significance of Eating Rotten Shark

Eating rotten shark, or hákarl, holds significant cultural significance in Iceland. Beyond being a culinary curiosity, hákarl is deeply rooted in Icelandic heritage and plays a role in various cultural practices and celebrations.


One of the main cultural events where rotten shark takes center stage is during the midwinter festival of Þorrablót. This traditional feast, held in January and February, celebrates the old Norse month of Þorri and honors Iceland’s historical past. Hákarl is a staple dish at Þorrablót, symbolizing the survival and resilience of the Icelandic people in the harsh winter months.


In addition to Þorrablót, hákarl is often enjoyed on special occasions and during festive gatherings, such as weddings, birthdays, and family reunions. Its presence on the table represents the preservation of traditions and the passing down of cultural heritage from generation to generation.


Partaking in the ritual of eating rotten shark also offers a sense of connection to Iceland’s natural environment. The reliance on offshore resources, such as hunting Greenland sharks, reflects the historical livelihoods of the Icelandic people, who have long depended on fishing and maritime activities for sustenance.


Furthermore, hákarl embodies the resilience and resourcefulness of the Icelandic people throughout history. With limited access to fresh food in the harsh Arctic conditions, the preservation methods used to transform the inedible shark meat into a palatable delicacy demonstrate the ingenuity and adaptability of the Icelandic culture.


From a broader perspective, the cultural significance of eating rotten shark lies in its ability to preserve and celebrate traditional practices. As Iceland undergoes modernization, holding onto culinary traditions like hákarl helps to foster a sense of national identity and pride. It serves as a reminder of the country’s rich cultural heritage and the importance of embracing and preserving traditions for future generations.


Engaging in the cultural practice of eating rotten shark offers an opportunity to immerse oneself in Icelandic customs and gain a deeper understanding of the country’s historical roots. It allows travelers to connect with local traditions, participate in cultural events, and create lasting memories that extend beyond the dining table.


So, the cultural significance of eating rotten shark goes far beyond mere sustenance—it is a way of honoring tradition, preserving heritage, and immersing oneself in the cultural fabric of Iceland.


The Controversy Surrounding Rotten Shark Eating

Eating rotten shark, or hákarl, is not without its fair share of controversy and debate. While it is a cherished culinary tradition in Iceland, there are aspects of consuming this delicacy that have drawn criticism and sparked discussions among locals and visitors alike.


One major point of contention revolves around animal rights. Greenland sharks are often considered a vulnerable species, and concerns have been raised about the sustainability of hunting these sharks for their meat. Critics argue that the consumption of rotten shark perpetuates the hunting of these slow-growing creatures, contributing to their population decline and potential endangerment.


Another contentious issue is the ethical treatment of animals during the hunting and preparation processes. Some animal rights activists argue that the method of hunting and processing sharks for hákarl is inhumane. They question whether it is justifiable to subject these creatures to such lengthy fermentation and drying processes, considering the level of suffering they may endure.


In addition, the strong ammonia smell associated with rotten shark has led to debates about the appropriateness of serving and consuming a food with such a pungent odor. Critics argue that the offensive smell can be off-putting and may impact the dining experience for both those enjoying the dish and those in the vicinity.


Furthermore, hákarl’s acquired taste can be a significant deterrent for many individuals. The combination of the unfamiliar flavor and strong ammonia aftertaste can be challenging for those unaccustomed to such unique culinary experiences. This has led to divided opinions on whether hákarl should be promoted as a delicacy for adventurous food travelers or reserved solely for Icelanders who have grown up with the tradition.


Despite the controversies surrounding hákarl, it is important to acknowledge the cultural significance and historical significance of this Icelandic delicacy. Many locals argue that hákarl should be viewed within its cultural context, emphasizing its long-standing traditions and connection to Icelandic heritage.


Efforts have been made to address some of the concerns regarding the sustainability and ethical treatment of animals. For instance, initiatives promoting sustainable fishing practices and responsible sourcing of shark meat have been introduced to alleviate concerns about the impact on Greenland shark populations.


As with any controversial topic, it is essential for travelers and food enthusiasts to approach the discussion around rotten shark eating with an open mind and respect for differing viewpoints. Engaging in respectful dialogue can provide valuable insights into the cultural nuances and ethical considerations surrounding hákarl and contribute to a deeper understanding of the complexities surrounding this gastronomic experience.


Ultimately, the decision to partake in eating rotten shark is a personal one, influenced by individual values, cultural appreciation, and a willingness to embrace unique culinary experiences while being mindful of the potential ethical and environmental implications.



Eating rotten shark, or hákarl, is an extraordinary culinary journey that transports us into the heart of Icelandic culture and tradition. From its long-standing history to the meticulous preparation process and the distinctive taste experience, hákarl offers a glimpse into a world unlike any other.


As we embark on our food travel adventures, exploring different cultures and flavors, hákarl stands out as a truly unique delicacy. It challenges our senses, pushing us to embrace new tastes and cultural practices that have been passed down through generations.


The cultural significance of eating rotten shark cannot be understated. It represents the resilience and resourcefulness of the Icelandic people, their deep connection to the natural environment, and their commitment to preserving traditions. It is a testament to the lengths they have gone to adapt to the harsh Arctic conditions and ensure their survival.


However, it is important to acknowledge the controversies surrounding hákarl. Concerns regarding sustainability, animal rights, and the acquired taste of this delicacy highlight the need for ongoing dialogue and responsible consumption. Balancing cultural preservation with ethical considerations is a delicate task, and it requires a nuanced understanding of the complexities at play.


Ultimately, experiencing hákarl is about more than just the taste. It’s about immersing ourselves in the stories, customs, and traditions that shape a country’s identity. It’s about gaining a deeper appreciation for the culinary heritage and the ingenuity of a people who have developed ingenious ways to transform the inedible into something to be celebrated.


So, as we travel in search of new gastronomic adventures, let us embrace the opportunity to try a bite of hákarl. Whether it leaves us with a newfound appreciation for the Icelandic heritage or reinforces the need for further discussion, it is through these experiences that we broaden our horizons and deepen our understanding of the world around us.


As the saying goes, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”. And when in Iceland, perhaps it’s time to embrace the tradition of eating rotten shark and embark on a culinary adventure that will leave a lasting impression.