Published: August 20th 2010August 20th 2010
Traditional Icelandic Cuisine
Hakarl is in the cup to the far right.
Wow. It feels like forever since I've updated this blog, but that's reality when you're on the road often. There's so many great things to share, but I feel like I have a great "comeback" blog entry. This summer, I took a week long trip to Iceland, London, and Dublin which was fantastic. Now, all these places I've mentioned aren't known for the most exotic food, but Iceland by far is known for some pretty, I'll say, "out there" eats. Of course, everyone asks me what I tried and where I ate, but the one thing that kept coming up was my experience with one of Iceland's national dishes - the dreaded hakarl. Warning - this blog article might make you sick to your stomach.
No matter where I go, I always want to sample the local cuisine, and what foods or dishes a place is known for. No matter how strange, funky, or gross it may sound, I want to try it (unless it's egg salad - I can't stand that stuff!). I had known for a long time from both my job @ Travel Channel and watching associated programs all about hakarl in Iceland. To give you a
The desert was like heaven after the hakarl.
brief history of how it's made, old Icelandic vikings would catch sharks off the coast of the island as a reliable food source. Since the winters are long and harsh in Iceland, the vikings had to figure out the best way to preserve the shark meat to last for months. After a few months of rotting under the earth, the shark is dug up and hung in a barn for months until "it's ready". Needless to say, hakarl also has a unique odor that just lingers wherever it is. Traditionally, this dish is served on special occasions in Iceland and around the holidays, and apparently, it's very good for your digestive system. Why was I so inclined to try something that had been rotting for months? I have no idea.
After I had went to the top of Hallgrímskirkja (the largest church in Iceland), I spotted a cafe that was across the street which I had read about in the paper. According to the city guide, this place was the best restaurant in Reykjavik for tourists to try "weird Icelandic foods". I was in. Looking at the menu, I wanted to make sure they served hakarl. They certainly did.
Our favorite restaurant is Subway!
I ordered up a traditional Icelandic sampler plate, which consisted of the following. One piece of rye bread with smoked lamb (very good). One piece of baked bread with fresh salmon (very good). One piece of rye bread with fish salad (excellent!). Then it started to get weird. The last two pieces of the dish were a cup of smoked fish with butter (almost like a fish jerky) which wasn't too bad. Then, there it stood. A small cup filled with four cubes of hakarl. Upon arriving in Iceland, I only wanted to try ONE piece. I was about to (hopefully) take down four.
Right off the bat, I made a critical mistake. Stupidly, I stuck my nose in the cup to see how strong the smell actually was. If you want to recreate the experience at home, just open up a bottle of Clorox Bleach, stick your nose in, and take a deep breath. You'll get the same effect. Holy shit - this stuff was rank. I said I would try it though, and throwing caution to the wind, I consumed my first piece. When I started to chew my first piece of hakarl, I thought to myself "Huh, this isn't so bad". It almost tasted like a strong piece of cod. Then, it happened. The smell started to travel up through my nose, like I had just inhaled a bottle of ammonia. It was horrifying, and all I could think was "Swallow this right now!" Using every muscle in my throat, I got the first piece down, but I still had 3 to go. Every piece got worse and worse, and by the time I got to the fourth piece, I was beyond relieved there was no more. I cam close to ralphing, as well as passing out. Somehow though, I survived. Thankfully, my meal came with dessert, so I had the waitress run to give me my berry-filled pancake with fresh whipped cream. Let me tell you, those were the best tasting pancakes I had ever eaten after downing the hakarl. It was like going from eating dog food to eating the rarest piece of kobe beef. For hours afterwards, the smell still lingered on in my mouth. Disgusting. Needless to say, I made sure I brushed teeth extra good that night.
As I told the waitress, I was only finishing all 4 pieces out of respect for their food culture. If that's what they've been eating for years and the Icelanders like it, then so be it. However, I am glad I tried it, and I think I grew a few more hairs on my chest. Am I a "real viking man" now? I think so.