Hakarl: The Dish Gordon Ramsay Couldn't Keep Down

Hakarl: The Dish Gordon Ramsay Couldn't Keep Down

Earlier today I was researching information about the Greenland shark for a post about a rash of strange seal deaths.  Everything about that story is strange, including the Greenland shark itself.

For one thing, the Greenland shark is poisonous.  But if you let it rot, the poison breaks down, and you can eat it.  If you are really, really brave.  This traditional dish is called "hakarl," and is not for the faint of heart.

When we think of sharks, most of us think of Discovery Channel Shark Week footage.  Clang!  Slash!  Snap snap!  Thrash!  Rawr!

The Greenland shark is the opposite of that.

Politely described as an "ambush predator," the Greenland shark is a rubbery, sluggish dweller of the coldwater deep.  It is also blind.  Not from birth, no.  This species of shark plays host to a parasitic copepod which eats the shark's eyes.  

The copepod is bioluminescent, which attracts prey.  The Greenland shark basically hangs there in the water until a fish comes near, lured by the shark's eye worms, at which point the Greenland shark snaps at it.

To quote Wikipedia, "The flesh of a Greenland shark is poisonous."  It contains the toxin trimethylamine oxide, which breaks down into trimethylamine.  In addition to being poisonous, this chemical is "responsible for the odor often associated with fouling fish, some infections, and bad breath."  Yum!  

Greenland sharks also contain a high proportion of uric acid (the active ingredient in urine), which gives the flesh a distinctive powerful smell and taste of ammonia.  Are you getting hungry yet?

In order to make the Greenland shark's meat safe to eat (if not palatable), it is fermented using a traditional beachfront burial.  The flesh is buried in a shallow hole on a gravel sand beach, and weighted down with several heavy rocks.  These rocks not only discourage predators, they also press out the "fluids" while the meat is fermenting.

The shark meat is left for between two and three months.  I had a friend who spent several years in a small town in Iceland.  She once mentioned that you always want to stay away from the hakarl beaches.  Every coastal area has its own designated hakarl beaches, where everyone goes to bury their shark meat.  The smell of all that rotting shark meat is… unpleasant.

After it's finished rotting, the meat is dug up and then hung to cure and dry for several months.  Then the crust is cut off, and the gelatinous meat is sliced into cubes, and served with a jaunty toothpick. 

According to one food blogger, "Everyone involved in this process should be on trial in The Hague."

No less an authority than Anthony Bourdain called hakarl "the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing."   After being challenged to eat it, Gordon Ramsay vomited.  Hakarl also appears at or near the top of any "worst food ever" list worth its snuff.  

Notwithstanding this, hakarl is sold in grocery stores in Iceland, and - one presumes - eaten by people on purpose.

Photo credit: Flickr/moohaha