[Sca-cooks] Stalking the wild hakarl

Phil Troy / G. Tacitus Adamantius adamantius1 at verizon.net
Sun Jan 4 16:08:27 PST 2009

Hullo, the list!

Some people asked for a report on the hakarl experience should it come  
my way,  so here goes -- the faint of heart can skip to the end or be  
content to learn that, once again, I have escaped death at the hands  
(or fins) of some weird food.

So no shinola, there I was, after being asked by my friend what in  
Heaven's name he was supposed to do with the stuff (and after I  
canvassed opinions here and reported back to him, after which he stuck  
it in his fridge to await my arrival, moral support and joint risk  
assumption from yours truly). The lady who had dropped it off at his  
house swore it needed to be boiled, but if I can't get corroboration  
of the word of a lifelong vegetarian with narrow tastes, even by  
vegetarian standards, I'm probably most likely to assume she doesn't  
know what she's talking about, which is what we did.

Eric produced a small, sealed plastic tub of approximately 3/4-inch  
whitish cubes of slightly niffy shark meat, a little airline bottle of  
what he called schnapps, but which proved to be brennevijn, which is  
the Icelandic equivalent of akvavit, which in turn is an ever-so- 
slightly-sweet, not with added sugar, but from whatever starchy thing,  
I assume potatoes and/or grain, it is made from, with a light caraway- 
seed flavor, distilled spirit consumed in small shots, very cold,  
often with things like gravlax and other fishy comestibles, as John  
Cleese might call them. Like vodka, it can be a little harsh on the  
throat, and serving it chilled helps. We had a regular-sized bottle of  
Danish akvavit for when we ran out of the Icelandic brennevijn.

Since this is commonly eaten at various Scandinavian smorrebrots,  
kalas, and smorgasbords, but most especially at the Icelandic  
midwinter festival known as Thorrablot -- only muy macho foods need  
apply -- I figured the best thing to do was to serve our hakarl with  
some sort of brown bread and/or lefse, butter, finely chopped raw  
sweet onion, and plenty of chilled brennevijn. Hey, if it's bad, that  
other stuff could save almost anything and turn it into a positive  
experience, and if it's good, even better, right? And, it's pretty  
much the standard presentation for a wide spectrum of raw or chilled  
Scandinavian seafoods, from poached crayfish or shrimp, to raw herring  
fillets, to gravlax, etc. We thought about adding a garnish of chopped  
hard-boiled egg, and decided against it, figuring we didn't want to  
obliterate the fish flavor _too_ much.

So, we opened the tub, and, well, it was shark meat. Smelling faintly  
of ammonia, which shark, ray, and skate often do when raw, slightly  
oily, which shark meat often is, and somewhat firmer than I'd have  
expected raw fish to be; I gather it is semi-desiccated, a little like  
prosciutto, in the curing process.

I had read in a number of sources that hakarl was a bit like ripe  
Camembert cheese, and it did have that aroma and flavor once the built- 
up ammonia fumes had dissipated. It's still fish, though, and had the  
oily richness one finds in salmon, trout, etc. I was a little  
surprised to find it a little tough, but then shark meat is pretty  
tough, with lots of connective tissue, but I'd have figured the whole  
point of burying it would be to decrease that (and, in the case of  
Greenland shark, to remove excess ammonia: certain deepwater fish have  
some metabolic processes that cause ammonia to build up in their  
muscle tissue, hence the need to age or marinate skate before serving,  
or bury Greenland shark in the sand). However, I suspect this wasn't  
cured as long as it used to be; whether it's too expensive to store it  
and not sell it, or whether it's been toned down for the tourists, I  
couldn't say.

My friend had to phone the lady who had given it to him, to thank her  
and gloat a bit, I suppose, and let her know we were eating the  
hakarl, at which point she reiterated her warning that we needed to  
boil this stuff or we would surely die. She said something about renal  
failure, and added that Anthony Bourdain and Jamie Oliver had both  
said, independently, that hakarl was the worst thing they had ever  
eaten in their lives, bar none -- I'm sitting there politely minding  
my own business, when suddenly I hear my friend announce that his  
buddy Phil said that Anthony Bourdain and Jamie Oliver are nothing but  
a couple of wusses... I don't recall saying that, but perhaps it was  
the schnapps talking; we were probably lucky to be able to say  
anything at that point. I do sort of wonder about anyone who gives  
someone a gift of food and says, "Here, this is potentially deadly;  
you'll love it!"

Well, it was an interesting experience; the fish was just a bit chewy,  
tasted faintly of both fish and cheese, did not kill me, gave me an  
excuse to consume plenty of brennevijn and akvavit, and get a taste of  
an extremely old tradition. I suspect the shark meat wasn't as old as  
the tradition, but one never knows, do one? In the end, a little went  
a very long way, and it's probably one of those things that it's good  
to be able to say you experienced it once, but probably not good  
enough for me to want to eat it regularly.

Brennevijn, on the other hand, provides an excellent excuse.

There was an interesting article in, I believe, the New York Times  
travel section a week or two ago, in which the author attributed a new  
Icelandic folk culinary renaissance to the foundering national  
economy. Apparently there are entire generations of Icelanders who've  
been living on sushi, sashimi, and imported smoked salmon from places  
like Scotland, who know absolutely nothing of the foods their  
grandparents ate. Now nobody has money to spare for imported luxury  
food items, and the grocery stores are full of shelves of ram's head  
cheese and testicles, both fresh and pickled in whey, dried haddock,  
pickled whale blubber and smoked lamb, and there are hundreds of  
thousands of unemployed yuppies now roaming the streets of Reykjavik,  
getting their first experience of zen and the art of pickled ram's  

At least it isn't Spam.


"Most men worry about their own bellies, and other people's souls,  
when we all ought to worry about our own souls, and other people's  
			-- Rabbi Israel Salanter

More information about the Sca-cooks mailing list