The pretty waitress slides a plate in front of me, and then looks into my face with dark eyes. “It’s raw and fermented,” she says. I smile to let her know it’s ok. “Yes, well, I always warn people about this dish.”
I just ordered hákarl, a traditional Icelandic dish with a global reputation as the shark from hell. It’s the same dish that made Gordon Ramsay vomit on TV. There’s a good reason for that. The meat of the Greenland Shark caught here is toxic, containing high levels of urea and trimethylamine oxide. To neutralize the toxins and make the meat somewhat edible, it’s dried in the wind. Except it won’t dry all the way through. The outside dries and seals the inside, which then ferments, gradually breaking down the toxins. After three months the dry skin is removed and the meat is cut into cubes and served.
“You don’t want wine with that,” says Chef Stefán Úlfarsson of the Thrir Frakkar restaurant in Reykjavik. He steps behind the bar and comes back with a bottle of Brennivin, Icelandic vodka. I pick up a hákarl cube. The first wallop comes from the smell of ammonia — that’s what urea turns into when it’s exposed to water. It tickles my nose and makes my eyes water. But the cube, much like a smelly chunk of French cheese, doesn’t taste as bad as my nose had announced. And my mouth seems to be covered with a film of fish fat.
“Now have a sip,” says Úlfarsson. I swallow some Brennivin and experience one of the weirdest food phenomena of my life. The combination of the shark and the Brennivin makes my next breath feel, taste and smell like a gush of fresh sea air. “Exactly!” Úlfarsson cheers when I describe the sensation. It’s that way with each bite, until the rotten shark, and much of the vodka, is gone.