Beware, anyone yet to visit Iceland – I’m about to tell you the possible whys and hows regarding the infamous Icelandic rotted shark. Your future tour guides may hate me. It’s a story that’s gotten me thinking about food…just, basic food.
I first heard about the shark from my fried Laurie, who first visited Iceland in 2001. She came back with tales of hot springs every 10 feet, magical greenhouses, and the annual winter ritual of catching sharks, burying them on the beach, and then digging them up months later, half-rotted, and eating it. And we all thought: Iceland’s a crazy place. Maybe this a macho thing like polar bear swims, or just a trick played on tourists – like when off-islanders visit Newfoundland and you’re made to kiss a cod and drink the screech.
I have now eaten of the shark…and like most things which sound insane, there is a logic.
My tour guide Sam, brought me to a tiny fish restaurant near Reykjavik’s harbour, where we first had harðfiskur. This is what the original Icelanders relied on when first there. Imaging eating nothing but dried, salted cod for months at a time. Which is where the shark, hákarl, comes in.
First, some icthyology: Sam explained that, since the North Atlantic Ocean is very cold, the sea creatures living in it have evolved a bit differently. Kidneys are made mostly of water (surprise), and because the North Atlantic is so cold, one’s kidneys will freeze in it. The sharks living is this ocean have gotten around the problem by evolving without kidneys. But, this means they need to expel urea (ie, pee) through muscles and then skin.
Sam said what probably happened was this: the first Icelanders caught a shark, butchered it on the beach, ate some, and got violently sick for weeks. They thought “Okay, don’t do THAT again”, buried the shark right there, and forgot about it. That is, until the following winter, when there wasn’t so much as harðfiskur to eat, and out of utter desperation, they dug up the now half-rotten shark, and ate some. And…it wasn’t pleasant, but they could keep it down.
We now know that, as the shark decomposes and dries out, its fluids – including its urea – get soaked up by the ground its buried in. The Icelanders only knew that it worked, and have been doing it ever since. It’s a rubbery texture, and the taste of leftover pee is definitely there. It was odd. Sam said that, not unlike the Screech I told him about, hákarl is still usually washed down with a shot of Brennivín, which is a lot like potato vodka. To me, it smelled slightly better than turpentine.
Traditional Icelandic cuisine is very basic: Meat soup (lamb). Dark bread. Lots and lots of seafood. The farms established in the rocky Iceland soil grew hay to feed livestock, so when times were good, the Icelandic diet was (and is) meat-heavy. When times were bad, it was dried cod and fermented shark.
Just like haggis. And pemmican. We forget that the food of France and Italy is very regional – they’ve traditionally used what was near to hand – it’s just that in many, not-so-cold places, what’s near to hand is variable and quite tasty.
Many of us have the choice now of overeating because we can eat whatever and whenever we want. I wonder if overeating is, to a degree, hard-wired in us, because we are homo sapiens, a species for whom centuries of survival food was normal.