I remember the first time I had fermented shark. Actually, I don’t. I have a confession to make: I’ve never tried it. In case you were wondering, no, this is not cause for having my citizenship revoked. In fact, it’s not uncommon. Like most Icelanders, I grew up on a steady diet of hot dogs, meatballs, hamburgers, spaghetti (with ketchup) and the occasional fish. The only time I ever really encountered hákarl was once a year at family dinner parties during the Þorri festival, a time of year when Iceland’s history is celebrated by feasting on various traditional foods that were commonly eaten in the past. I would watch my uncles dare my older brothers to eat sheep’s testicles, in a strange rite of passage that required no skill except folding under peer pressure. Icelandic traditional cuisine, in all its fermented and pickled glory, was developed under the constraints of long dark winters and the necessity to make food last over a long period of time while nothing could grow. It’s not really something to enjoy. People had two options: Eat smelly things or die.
As soon as Iceland became industrialised in the 20th century, that urgency to make food last by any means necessary subsided. I didn’t really see hákarl in supermarkets when I was growing up. No one wanted it. When Þorri season was gone, so was the hákarl. But with Iceland’s growing popularity as a destination, so grew hákarl’s infamy. It has arguably surpassed surströmming as the ultimate putrid Nordic delicacy (suck it, Sweden!). People staying in Iceland can’t wait to try it and the rising demand has far exceeded the short season of Þorri. Now you can get it all year round, something unheard of twenty years ago. It’s even available in 24/7 convenience stores, if the sudden urge for shark that was buried in the ground for three months hits you at four in the morning. The old tradition of eating hákarl once a year to celebrate Iceland’s history is all but gone now. The new tradition has become sadistically convincing visitors that they must eat it or else commit a faux pas, and then laugh at the inevitable writhing, groaning or possibly barfing that comes with it.
So when you go to a supermarket and think to yourself, “Wow, those Icelanders sure eat some weird things. We gotta try it!”, know that those things are actually there for you. Meanwhile, I will be by the condiments section, filling my cart with oyster sauce and yellow mustard.