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Fermented shark hanging to dry in Iceland

Hákarl (an abbreviation of kæstur hákarl [ˈcʰaistʏr ˈhauːˌkʰa(r)tl̥]), referred to as fermented shark in English, is a national dish of Iceland consisting of Greenland shark or other sleeper shark that has been cured with a particular fermentation process and hung to dry for four to five months.[1] It has a strong ammonia-rich smell and fishy taste, making hákarl an acquired taste.[2]

Fermented shark is readily available in Icelandic stores and may be eaten year-round, but is most often served as part of a Þorramatur, a selection of traditional Icelandic food served at the midwinter festival þorrablót.


Fermented shark in a store

Fermented shark contains a large amount of ammonia and has a strong smell, similar to that of many cleaning products. It is often served in tiny cubes on toothpicks. Those new to it may gag involuntarily at the first attempt to eat it because of the high ammonia content.[2] First-timers are sometimes advised to pinch their nose while taking the first bite, as the odor is much stronger than the taste. It is often eaten with a shot of the local spirit, a type of akvavit called brennivín.[3]

Hákarl comes in two varieties: chewy and reddish glerhákarl ([ˈklɛːrˌhauːˌkʰa(r)tl̥], lit. "glassy shark") from the belly, and white and soft skyrhákarl ([ˈscɪːr-], lit. "skyr shark") from the body.


The meat of the Greenland shark is poisonous when fresh because of its high urea and trimethylamine oxide content. However, when properly processed, it may be consumed safely.[3][4]

The traditional method begins with gutting and beheading a shark and placing it in a shallow hole dug in gravelly sand, with the cleaned cavity resting on a small mound of sand. The shark is then covered with sand and gravel, and stones are placed on top of the sand in order to press the fluids out of the body. The shark ferments in this fashion for six to twelve weeks, depending on the season. Following this curing period, the shark is cut into strips and hung to dry for several months. During this drying period, a brown crust will develop, which is removed prior to cutting the shark into small pieces and serving. The traditional preparation process may be observed at Bjarnarhöfn Shark Museum on Snæfellsnes.[5]

The modern method is simply to press the shark's meat in a large plastic container, into which drain holes have been cut.[6]


Chef Anthony Bourdain described fermented shark as "the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing" he had ever eaten.[2]

Chef Gordon Ramsay challenged James May to sample three "delicacies" (Laotian snake whiskey, bull penis, and fermented shark) on The F Word. After eating fermented shark, Ramsay spat it out, but May was able to keep his down. May even offered to eat it again.[7]

On an Iceland-themed season-2 episode of Travel Channel's Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, Andrew Zimmern described the smell as reminding him of "some of the most horrific things I've ever breathed in my life", but said that the dish tasted much better than it smelled. He described the taste as "sweet, nutty and only faintly fishy". Nonetheless, he did note of fermented shark: "That's hardcore. That's serious food. You don't want to mess with that. That's not for beginners".[8]

On a 2015 episode of Travel Man, Jessica Hynes and Richard Ayoade visited a Reykjavík restaurant and described the taste of hákarl as "awful", "like a jellied cube of ammonia", albeit "technically edible".[9]

On a season-5 final episode of Animal Planet's River Monsters, biologist and angler Jeremy Wade mentioned that the flesh "smells of urine" that has "a really strong aftertaste, it really kicks in. It really kicks in at the back of the throat after you take the first bite". He further stated that the meat was unlike anything that he had tried before and that it was similar to a very strong cheese but with a definite fish element.[citation needed]

Archaeologist Neil Oliver tasted hákarl in the BBC documentary Vikings as part of his examination of the Viking diet. He described it as reminiscent of "blue cheese but a hundred times stronger".[citation needed]

In his series Ainsley Eats the Streets, chef Ainsley Harriott was unable to tolerate the heavy ammonia taste and described it as "like chewing a urine-infested mattress".[citation needed]

In the Simpsons season 24 episode "The Saga of Carl", Homer threatens native Icelander Carl with the dish, saying, "Give us some answers or you'll get a mouthful of rotten shark fermenting in its own urine!", to which Carl exclaims, "No, no! Anything but the inedible, repulsive food of my native land!"[10]


The Greenland shark takes 150 years to reach sexual maturity, with some sharks living up to 400 years.[11][12][13] Due to this, hunting of the Greenland shark is unsustainable and is slowly leading to the potential extinction of the species. As the Greenland shark is the longest-living vertebrate in the world, it takes an enormous amount of time for native populations to recover, currently being listed as vulnerable by the IUCN, primarily due to the effects of bycatch.[14][15] Associations, such as the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization, an intergovernmental fishing science and management body, are calling for a ban of the hunting and killing of Greenland shark.[16][17]

See also[edit]

  • Fesikh – Traditional Egyptian fish dish fermented in salt
  • Garum – Historical fermented fish sauce
  • Gravlax – Nordic dish consisting of raw salmon cured in salt, sugar, and dill
  • Hongeo-hoe – Type of fermented fish dish from Korea's Jeolla province
  • Igunaq – Method of preparing meat, particularly walrus and other marine mammals
  • Kiviak – Little auks fermented in a sealskin, a traditional Greenlandic food
  • Kusaya – Japanese dried and fermented fish
  • Lutefisk – Nordic dried fish dish
  • Pla ra – Southeast Asian fermented fish seasoning
  • Rakfisk – Norwegian fermented fish dish made from trout or char
  • Surströmming – Swedish fermented Baltic Sea herring
  • Worcestershire sauce – English fermented condiment


  1. ^ "Hákarl: Iceland's Rancid Fermented Shark Delicacy". Travel Food Atlas. 9 June 2020. Retrieved 29 December 2020.
  2. ^ a b c Herz, Rachel (28 January 2012). "You eat that?". Wall Street Journal. Archived from the original on 17 March 2015. Retrieved 30 January 2012.
  3. ^ a b Yuen, David. "The Mystery of Hakarl: Rotten Shark Meat Delicacy From Iceland". Archived from the original on 29 October 2013.
  4. ^ "Somniosus microcephalus :: Florida Museum of Natural History". 9 May 2017. Archived from the original on 21 March 2013. Retrieved 25 July 2014.
  5. ^ Bjarnarhöfn Shark Museum Archived 27 September 2013 at the Wayback Machine.
  6. ^ Wheatley, Gale (20 September 2010). "Iceland's Wild Culinary Traditions: Hákarl and Brennivín". Archived from the original on 6 March 2014.
  7. ^ "Gordon Ramsay vs. James May", The F-Word, archived from the original on 6 January 2017, retrieved 25 November 2016
  8. ^ "Iceland". Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern. Season 2. Episode 2. 11 March 2008. Travel Channel.
  9. ^ ""The Fermented Shark of Iceland")". 16 November 2019.
  10. ^ "The Saga of Carl". www.disneyplus.com. 19 May 2013. Retrieved 31 January 2023.
  11. ^ Nielsen, Julius; Hedeholm, Rasmus B.; Heinemeier, Jan; Bushnell, Peter G.; Christiansen, Jørgen S.; Olsen, Jesper; Ramsey, Christopher Bronk; Brill, Richard W.; Simon, Malene; Steffensen, Kirstine F.; Steffensen, John F. (2016). "Eye lens radiocarbon reveals centuries of longevity in the Greenland shark (Somniosus microcephalus)". Science. 353 (6300): 702–4. Bibcode:2016Sci...353..702N. doi:10.1126/science.aaf1703. hdl:2022/26597. PMID 27516602. S2CID 206647043.
  12. ^ Pennisi, Elizabeth (11 August 2016). "Greenland shark may live 400 years, smashing longevity record". Science. doi:10.1126/science.aag0748.
  13. ^ The Strange and Gruesome Story of the Greenland Shark, the Longest-Living Vertebrate on Earth, The New Yorker, M. R. O'Connor, 25 November 2017. Retrieved 27 November 2017.
  14. ^ "IU Expert on the Vulnerable Greenland Shark | International - Times of India Videos". The Times of India.
  15. ^ The Conservation of the Greenland Shark (Somniosus microcephalus): Setting Scientific, Law, and Policy Coordinates for Avoiding a Species at Risk, Journal of International Wildlife Law and Policy, By: Brendal Davis, David L VanderZwaag, Aurelie Cosandey-Godin, Nigel E. Hussey, Steven T. Kessel, and Boris Worm
  16. ^ Pester, Patrick (8 October 2021). "Greenland sharks: The longest-living vertebrates". livescience.com.
  17. ^ Nielsen, Julius; Christiansen, Jørgen Schou; Grønkjær, Peter; Bushnell, Peter; Steffensen, John Fleng; Kiilerich, Helene Overgaard; Præbel, Kim; Hedeholm, Rasmus (28 November 2019). "Greenland Shark (Somniosus microcephalus) Stomach Contents and Stable Isotope Values Reveal an Ontogenetic Dietary Shift". Frontiers in Marine Science. 6: 125. doi:10.3389/fmars.2019.00125. hdl:10037/15917.

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