Braving the shark

A journalist friend of mine passed through London last week on his way back from Iceland, with all kinds of goodies, including a sheep’s head, horse meat and some cured puffin. Most excitingly, he brought back a little of that most infamous Icelandic delicacy, rotted shark. As anyone who’s read my recent memoir will know, I don’t have many food taboos, and I was longing to see if this stinky stuff would defeat me. I really expected it to: I had visions of some slimy, putrescent gunge that I’d only be able to taste with closed eyes and pinched nostrils.

To my amazement, however, it was fine, and not shocking at all. It came in small cubes, with a heady, high, exhilarating smell reminiscent of ripe roquefort and Chinese preserved duck eggs. It was no worse than the aroma of durian fruit or cheese, and actually rather bracing. Smell aside, the rotted flesh looked like any cured fish, waxy and slightly translucent. In the mouth, it had an oily, chewy texture, like a cross between real cold-smoked salmon and biltong.

Oh dear, if I can eat even this without blanching, where on earth am I to go for a real gastronomic challenge?! Any suggestions?

9 Responses to “Braving the shark”

  1. Susan

    Hi there,
    Well, my hat’s off to you. When we tried hakarl (rotted shark) in Iceland, it rankled our palates for days with an acrid ammoniac tang. Once was definitely enough!
    Susan

  2. Mr. Wozencroft

    Casu Frazigu may be worth trying if you have an italian connection who doesnt mind operating outside the parameters of the law. Though I’m not sure if the Italys banning the sale of it includes it being gifted.
    The maggots in the cheese excrete enzynes that produce a extremely rotten, pungent smell and a soft creamy texture. I think its safe to presume that one persons rotten is anothers pure delight.

  3. admin

    My father (a notorious cheese-hater) regards the smell of virtually any cheese as most non-Icelanders regard rotted shark. And there’s a marvellous quote from one of the American scholar E.N. Anderson’s Chinese sources that describes cheese as (I paraphrase – this is from memory) ‘the putrefied discharge of some old cow’s udder’.

    Thanks, Susan. I was actually quite disappointed at my lack of reaction!!

  4. James

    Well, there is balut, which you may have come across…

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balut_(egg)

    Lutefisk is pretty low on my list, although it is probably similar to your rotting shark.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lutefisk

    I’m past the point where I “enjoy” these challenges, but these are the only two that defeated me. I had no problem with durian, scorpions, witchetty grubs (Australia), snakes and spiders… I’ve even eaten (and liked) this:

    http://tinyurl.com/av6lv

    But the top two really put me off.

    Oh, I am not sure I could cope with this:

    http://tinyurl.com/7hzhn

    Like I said, I’m past this point where I’ll try something for the “challenge.” Just give me a good meal and I’m happy!

  5. admin

    Strangely, I tried balut – or, rather, the Vietnamese version of it – in east London, a few years ago. There was a shop near my home run by two Vietnamese brothers, and they had tehese eggs that I initially assumed were salted duck eggs. When I tried to buy some, they almost refused to let me, warning me that I would be horrified by their contents. Of course I took this as a challenge, and insisted on buying one to try. I took it home with a warning to eat it within a couple of days, before the embryo grew and sprouted more feathers!

    Eating it was a slightly weird experience – the embryo tasted a bit gamey, and the texture wasn’t especially pleasant.

    I haven’t tried lutefisk, but the Sichuanese preparation of dried squid sounds remarkably similar, and also yields a softly rubbery texture.

    Black pudding is delicious. Placenta I haven’t tried!

  6. david adam edelstein

    The problem is, you’re looking in the wrong direction. I’m sure the UK has the equivalent of our American roadside diners, with vegetables boiled to death, meat like shoe leather… learning to appreciate those foods would be a TRUE gastronomic challenge :-)

  7. ken

    Hey, I just stumbled across yr book on the Amazon listing of 2009 IACP cookbook finalists and am looking forward to getting to know you better, so to speak. As noted above, there may be some challenges right under yr nose. I’m sure you could stomach most of the things here, but you certainly wouldn’t be the better for it!

    http://thisiswhyyourefat.com/

  8. juliana

    I was just going to suggest those embryo eggs that I found as a delicacy all over Vietnam. Hats off to you, you’d win the ‘fear factor’ food round hands down!

    I love 皮蛋, is it true that these century eggs were marinated in horse piss and herbs and then buried underground before they found the modern means to do it? My late grandmother told me that’s how they did it and it’s the ammonia that makes the eggs taste so rank.

    I grew up on both gorgonzola and century eggs and never saw them as similar. Thanks for drawing the reference at your talk!

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