Hákarl (an abbreviation of kæstur hákarl Icelandic pronunciation: ​[ˈcʰaistʏr ˈhauːˌkʰa(r)tl̥], referred to as fermented shark in English) is a national dish of Iceland consisting of a 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 hanging to dry in Iceland

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 cubes on toothpicks. Those new to it may gag involuntarily on 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]

It comes in two varieties: chewy and reddish glerhákarl ([ˈɡlɛːrˌhauːˌkʰa(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 content of urea and trimethylamine oxide. 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]

Reactions from outside IcelandEdit

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."

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.

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."

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."

See alsoEdit

  • Fesikh – Traditional Egyptian fish dish fermented in salt
  • Garum – Classical period 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 style salted-dried and fermented fish
  • Lutefisk – Traditional Scandinavian dish made from dried fish fermented in lye
  • Pla ra – Southeast Asian fermented fish seasoning
  • Rakfisk – Norwegian fermented fish dish made from trout or char
  • Surströmming – A lightly-salted fermented Baltic Sea herring
  • Worcestershire sauce – Anchovy-flavoured condiment


  1. ^ "Hákarl: Iceland's Rancid Fermented Shark Delicacy". Travel Food Atlas. Retrieved 2020-12-29.
  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 2013-10-29.
  4. ^ "Somniosus microcephalus :: Florida Museum of Natural History". 2017-05-09. Archived from the original on 2013-04-05. Retrieved 2014-07-25.
  5. ^ Bjarnarhöfn Shark Museum Archived 2013-09-27 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 2017-01-06, retrieved 2016-11-25

External linksEdit