The weirdest thing I'll probably never eat (Spoiler alert: it's fermented shark)

A cairn in Iceland during our trip around the Ring
Road in 2017.
Photo credit: Lauren J. Mapp
When I travel, I love to be adventurous and try the foods that are unique to the region I am visiting.

As a result, I have eaten Guinea pig and alpaca in Peru, veal brain in Italy, venison in Munich, blood sausage in England, crickets in New Mexico, edible insect cookies, chicha (a beer fermented by chewing and spitting corn) from Bolivia, escargot in Paris, durian fruit, and many other dishes that we don't generally consume as part of the mainstream, American culinary culture.

I am lucky in that I am neither picky nor allergic to any foods (aside from some yogurts and kombucha), so not knowing the language that a menu is presented to me in is generally not an issue.

While I pride myself in the fact that I will try almost anything from anywhere, there have been two dishes that I couldn't bring myself to eat while I was traveling in Iceland: whale and fermented shark.

During my two trips to the land of fire and ice, I considered the possibility of trying both. I ultimately decided that I couldn't support the modern whaling industry, and as for the latter, witnessing someone else's "fermented-shark-eating-experience" ruined its prospects for me.

When we were in Iceland last year, Peter and I were sitting at a table next to a large, burly, tough-acting Russian man. We were at the Restaurant Reykjavík buffet for dinner, and the man gets up, snags a jar of fermented shark, and proudly saunters back to his friend.

Once he sits down again, he opens the jar, takes a bite and...immediately runs to the bathroom. When he returns, he declares something along the lines of: "Well, there's something I'll never eat again."

I decided that I probably didn't want to ruin the amazing meal I had just eaten by trying the fermented shark, so I skipped picking up a jar of it for myself.

Fermented shark (Hákarl) is made from Greenland shark, which has a large quantity of urea and trimethylamine oxide. This allows the species to be more buoyant, live at great depths and survive in cold, subarctic waters.

Because of the presence of these chemicals, Greenland shark meat is poisonous if eaten straight from the sea, thus, it must be fermented to be edible. It is fermented and processed for about six months before it is deemed safe to serve, according to National Geographic.

Despite the misconception that the dish is eaten regularly by Icelanders, it is actually considered to be an acquired taste reserved for rare occasions like the Þorrablót midwinter festival, according to Wake Up Reykjavík and the Nordic Visitor blog.

Its flavor remains a mystery to me, but allegedly, fermented shark has a strong flavor and scent of ammonia.

If you have eaten fermented shark in Iceland, comment below to let me know if I missed a great opportunity by not trying it. If you haven't tried it, comment with the most unique food that you have (or haven't) eaten during your travels abroad.

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Anonymous said…
I tried three types of caviar, when I was traveling in another country. One of them was Beluga. I would not recall the other varieties. That seems mundane, though, when compared to shark and whale.
Unknown said…
I ate snails when I was in Paris and survived.The trick is don't think about it .My Dad always loved snails which he harvested himself.

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