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If there be any truth in the saying “you are what you eat” that is. I’ve been in Iceland all week with work. One of the traditional specialties on the menu in Reykjavik is “hákarl” which is rotten shark. I managed to hold down three cubes of the stuff but left as many on my plate. After that appetizer, my grilled horse filet and bottle of red (some Chilian cabernet John) seemed quite pedestrian...

 

 

Iceland, by the way, is a very nice, very tiny country with a population of 330 281 at the time of writing. You are presumably familiar with the bank colapse,  interesting plate tectonics and recent volcanic activity there. But did you know that Icelanders descend from Norwegian vikings. Vikings who raped, killed or pillaged the wrong people in the wrong place were often exiled from Norway. The people sailed west to Iceland. The most famous of the bunch being Erik the Red, father of Leif Erikson. Their family line, being truly excellent vikings, got exiled from Norway to Iceland, from Iceland to Greenland, and finally from Greenland westward into the unknown eventually landing in Newfoundland. Now, what was I talking about? Oh yes, rotten shark.

Rotten shark sounds rather strange, and it is. The shark meat is left to rot in its own juices for several months buried in a dirt hole, then hung on a rack to cure for a few more months. It ends up on your dinner plate looking like small cubes of white cheese. However the fishy taste and strong ammonia smell make it easy to distinguish. The ammonia is a by-product of the fermenting  process. Basically it smells like the men’s restroom at the football stadium on a crowded summer day. Yes, the smell of piss is the smell of ammonia. With that mental image prevailing during my dinner, I was quite proud of myself for eating as much as I did.

Perhaps even stranger than having eaten a few bites of rotten shark this week is the fact that this was not a completely new experience for me. In Norway we have three types of fish that all fall into the “rotten” category: Lutefisk is by far the most discusting. Cod is placed in a lye solution until it turns into a gelenous mass. It is quite popular at Christmas. Gravlaks is salmon tossed in a hole in the sand, covered with salt, and left for a few months. Don’t tell anyone, but it actually tastes quite good. Finally, we have rakørret which is a trout thrown into a bucket of salt. Come back a year later and it is ready to eat. It is pretty good too. We also do the same thing do the same thing with reindeer and moose meat, well real Norwegians do it, not foreigners like me.

In all seriousness, I didn’t care for the rotten shark. All you get are cubes of the stuff to pop in your mouth and a shot to wash it down with. Whereas with the rotten fish types in Norway, they do a much better job of serving the fish as part of a full dish, for example with potatoes, chopped bacon and a decent sauce. All the accompaniments do a good job of concealing the rottenness of the main protein. The Icelanders being more in tune with their viking heritage serve the shark on it’s own with no distractions. I guess real men don’t need to candy coat their food.

A word of advice, with both the Icelandic hákarl and Norwegian lutefisk, locals highly recommend very strong schnapps as an accompaniment to the dish. Any time locals says “it tastes best with schnapps” you can be guaranteed that the dish will taste down right horrid. If they don’t make this recommendation, then it probably will taste fine.

I found a video from National Geographic which details the whole Icelandic process of making rotten shark if you are interested.

So, what is the strangest traditional food in your neck of the woods? 

Bon appétit!

Roland GTX

PS: I'm sorry if I've offended any fellow Scandinavians in the audience. That was not my intention

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