To globe-trekking celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain it’s “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he’s ever eaten. Gordon Ramsay exclaimed “Bloody hell!” before violently spitting it out. But in Iceland, Hakarl and Brennivin is a quintessential dish, equivalent to American apple pie.

Hakarl and Brennivin

Hákarl hanging and drying

OK, maybe hákarl is not quite as common as apple pie. But the fermented shark meat is most definitely a uniquely Icelandic “delicacy” (depending who you ask, of course). Traditionally, hákarl is prepared from the meat of a Greenland shark, which is so full of chemicals urea and trimethylamine oxide that it’s poisonous when fresh.

Fortunately—and we use that word loosely—Icelandic vikings came up with a solution: the meat is buried in a hole and then covered with sand and gravel for two months, allowing the earth to rid the meat of its toxic chemicals. It’s then hung and dried for several more months, where it develops a brown crust that’s removed before serving. Traditionally, eating hákarl has been interpreted as a sign of strength, which makes sense once you’ve actually smelled it; it’s said hákarl smells even stronger (note that we didn’t say “better”) than it tastes.

So how does it taste? Well, here’s what happened when Ramsay tried it (skip to 2:37):

Hakarl and Brennivin



As Ramsay briefly mentioned in the clip above (before reaching for a bucket), hákarl is often served with brennivin, Iceland’s signature spirit.

Brennivin is traditionally served cold and in a shot glass, but if you’re hoping it will wash away the taste of hákarl and return your mouth to a pleasant (or at least netural) state, think again. Literally meaning “burning wine,” brennivin is an 80-proof liquor made from fermented grain or potato mash, similar to vodka, and flavoured with cumin, caraway, and angelica, among other things.

While neither hákarl nor brennivin are for the uninitiated, both are considered delicacies by those who have acquired the taste. (Though you may have trouble finding such people…)

About the Author

Reykjavik Restaurants

Trip Designer Orsolya Kako plans experiential and in-depth excursions to locales as varied as Japan, Morocco and Iceland from her home base in Toronto. Her name gets butchered a lot, but she’ll usually respond to “U

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4 Responses to Hakarl and Brennivin:
An Acquired Taste

  1. Maki says:

    Does hakarl lose its taste as it gets old? If you open it and leave it stored in the fridge for 1 – 2 years, will it be still edible and will it be as disgusting or not?

    • Dave Bowden Dave Bowden says:

      Hi Maki!

      We looked into it and polled our Icelandic experts, but we couldn’t find a definitive answer. This is probably a case where there’s only one way to find out (and we have to admit, we’re not sure if we want to smell the results of the test!). If you do try it, let us know how it goes!

  2. Joe says:

    I just received 100 grams of hakarl from iceland and have yet to try it. I’m curious about it’s texture. Is it supposed to be moist or dry when I bite into it? I ask because the hakarl I received came vacuum sealed but seems to be wet. The video of Ramsay above and the episode of Bizzare Foods make it seem like the hakarl is almost like a cheddar when it’s cut.

    • Dave Bowden Dave Bowden says:

      Joe, I checked with one of our Iceland experts, who tells me the texture should be “moist… and unpleasant.” So don’t worry too much if it seems wet. Enjoy (and good luck)!

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