17/01/2006

How to prepare hakarl: "rotten" or cured shark

I think I will start my series of Þorri recipes by describing how the most controversial item on the Þorri menu is made.

Cured shark is one of those classic "let's scare the tourists" foods that can be found in most countries. This is not to say that we don't eat it as well. We do. Some of us love it so much that we will eat it as a snack. For others, a small nibble before the Þorri buffet begins for real is quite sufficient. It helps the digestion, which is why I always have a few bites before sitting down to the heavy Þorri food.

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Cured shark for sale at an outdoor market.

I read in a book that there is uremic acid in the flesh of sharks. This I am inclined to believe, considering that cured shark smells like stagnant urine or ammonia. The uremic acid content only becomes dangerous if the shark is not butchered correctly right after it’s killed, becasuse fresh shark meat is edible and supposedly quite good, although it has never been popular in Iceland. The folk tale that tells Icelanders that they will die if they eat fresh shark probably has it’s origins in stories of people who ate fresh shark meat that had not been properly treated, and died or became ill as a result.

I don’t know how the curing method was discovered, but it all likelihood someone who was desperately hungry dug up a shark that had rotted on the beach and ate it to avoid starving, and discovered that it was, if not exactly good food, at least not dangerous. Curing is, of course, a good method of making food that can be stored for many months.

Connoisseurs of strong cheese generally like cured shark on the first bite. Others find it to be an aquired taste.


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Cured shark being served and sampled.

Traditional curing method:

Don't try this at home unless you know what the end product is supposed to taste like. Although cured shark is putrefied and thus technically spoiled already, it can go bad and give you food poisoning.

Take one large shark, gut and discard the fins, tail, innards, the cartilage and the head (BTW, a very healthy oil is processed from the liver and used as a food supplement). Cut flesh into large pieces.Wash in running water to get all slime and blood off. Dig a large hole in coarse gravel, preferably down by the sea and far from the nearest inhabited house - this is to make sure the smell doesn't bother anybody. Put in the shark pieces, and press them well together. It's best to do this when the weather is fairly warm (but not hot), as it hastens the curing process. Cover with more gravel and put heavy rocks on top to press down. Leave for 6-7 weeks (in summer) to 2-3 months (in winter). During this time, fluid will drain from the shark flesh, and putrefication will set in.

When the shark is soft and smells like ammonia, remove from the gravel, wash, and hang in a drying shack. This is a shack or shed with plenty of holes to let the wind in, but enough shade to prevent the sun from shining directly on the shark. Let it hang until it is firm and fairly dry: 2-4 months. Warm, windy and dry weather will hasten the process, while cold, damp and still weather will delay it.

Slice off the brown crust, cut the whitish flesh into small pieces and serve, preferably with a shot of ice-cold brennivín.

The modern method for curing shark relies on putting it into a large container with a drainage hole, and letting it cure as it does when buried in gravel.

Note:
-Cured shark smells worse than it tastes. The texture is somewhat like a piece of fat, the colour is a dirty white/beige, and the taste reminds some people of strong cheese with a fishlike aftertaste.

4 comments:

hadeken said...

amazing, rly
thank you very much

Anonymous said...

Great article! I just returned from a trip to Iceland where I got a chance to try hakarl. I agree with the flavor assessment, it smells like cat pee but doesn't have nearly as strong of a taste as the smell belies. Worth trying for the novelty of it, but doesn't have much taste beyond a bit of fishiness.

Ben Goodwin said...

Check out this video of me trying hákarl: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PipbJPMiyGE :-)

Bibliophile said...

Very entertaining, Ben. By the way, the pronunciations is something like: HOW-carl, except you roll the r.