The Taste of Repulsion (or a meditation on fermented shark)

Tasting Menu 2, Cafe Loki

Hákarl. Fermented shark. Whatever the language, the Icelandic delicacy inspires distaste among the gastro-tourists. The distaste extends beyond bloggers and Trip Advisor reviews — even Anthony Bourdain, iron-stomach extraordinaire, dubs it ‘unspeakably nasty’. Travelers concur: fermented shark is not worth exporting. 

Iceland's tourist economy provides ample opportunities for those curious to sample the country’s weirdest foods without wasting an expensive meal. Supermarkets sell small tubs of hákarl, packs of dried fish and rúgbrauð, Icelandic rye bread. Only skyr, a strained cheese that resembles Greek yogurt in taste and texture, comes in large containers, speaking to Icelanders’ confidence in the product’s appeal. 

But even supermarkets packages can be too big. That's where restaurants like Cafe Loki step in. The all-day restaurant cooks Icelandic dishes for tourists streaming in from adjacent Hallgrmískirkja, a large modern-gothic church and Reykjavik's most recognizable landmark. Diners pick from open-faced sandwiches on rye bread and platters offering guidebook-marked must-tries. Perhaps the only disgust-inducing dish not available is svið, lamb head served alongside turnip and potato mash.

Fermented shark comes either as a sampler or as part of a platter. Whatever you choose, you receive a smattering of pristine white cubes marked with an Icelandic flag toothpick, a prize for ingesting the offending product.

Kæstur Hákarl
Image via Audrey, Flickr

When my meal arrived, I started with the shark. It's served cut into sugar-cube sized pieces and only a few shades darker than one. From far away there's no aroma, but a sharp, vinegary bite develops as you bring it toward your mouth. The vinegar flavor intensifies as you chew through the toothy, jelly-like fish. But this soon succumbs to a salty odor that travels up your nose and down your throat, burning like horseradish or vodka. After swallowing it's not the flavor you remember, but rather the total combination of aroma, texture and aftertaste.

I was not disgusted. I quite liked it. I ate two pieces and would have eaten more had my dining companions not also wanted to try. Shoving the innocuous pieces into their mouths, their faces contorted -- disgust. Most people I talked to who tried it recalled the same reaction -- disgust. 

But, why? What about this innocent-looking foodstuff turns the stomach? Was my confessed enjoyment an affectation that went along with my appreciation of aquavit, dark rye bread and salty licorice? Although I'd prefer to think otherwise, I'm involved in a food culture that praises the daring but expects personal preferences to collide with cultural background. In this sense, my enjoyment wasn’t a natural reaction, but rather a culturally-informed response. Knowing the food’s social meaning, I ate it and enjoyed it to identify with contemporary foodies and foreign cultures. I have a taste for these flavors and sensations because I want to identify with the Nordic community. Whether or not food actually identifies me as I wish is irrelevant; ingesting these products allows me the self-identification I desire.

This is Hákarl, fermented Greenland shark. One of the strangest things I’ve ever eaten, it’s buried in the sand and then hung to dry in open air for months because it’s poisonous when fresh. The heavy smell and taste of ammonia is certainly eye opening.
Flickr via Chris Wronski

There might be another, less personal, reason for this universal distaste. Disgust is the pre-determined reaction in front of fermented shark. Diners are conditioned to respond in this way and so they do. I have never read an article where the author doesn’t hate hákarl. Maybe Icelanders want it this way -- they eat this product, we don’t. They play a joke on unsuspecting foreigners; foreigners have a joke played on them. Perhaps together we create an environment that invents the modern meaning of an ancient product. Whether or not Icelanders eat fermented shark on a daily basis is irrelevant as it makes up part of their culture and lore that visitors don’t share. They have a taste. We don't

The conditions under which non-Icelanders eat hákarl reproduce this dynamic. From the small portion sizes to the special consumption locations, the presentation directs us away from enjoyment. We enjoy a large plate of steaming lamb, we sample fermented shark. It’s not a food, it’s a taste. It's the small canapé, the pre-dinner nibble that we want to eat but hold back from knowing that we should save room for the main meal, a meal that will undoubtedly satisfy us in a deeper way than the small pickings presented first. How can we enjoy this product when we aren't given the opportunity to? Tourist accounts of fermented shark don't recount disgust because it's the only response to this product, but because it's the natural response to the presentation.  

I liked fermented shark. Or, I think I did. Although the product has a divisive taste, texture and sensation, the cultural cues that permeate its representation prevent impartiality. If only we could do away with these markings, tasting the fermented food blindfolded in a room with offending products we enjoy (Roquefort? Kimchi? Marmite?). Then maybe we'd be able to appraise hákarl without prejudice. But until then, eating fermented shark means ingesting your place within global food culture and identifying with a pre-conditioned reaction.