Culinary Masochism of Vikings and Koreans: An Unlikely Dynamic Duo

I admit, I went a bit far with the title in terms of comparing two very different cultures. But you know what? Sometimes people from opposite parts of the world can have common traditions without knowing it. As a result of my dizzying travels around the world, I’ve learned that both groups have at least one thing in common: fermented seafood that reeks and clears your sinuses. 

Yes, that’s right, seafood that’ll make the toughest sailor cry. It all goes back to the good old days of vikinghood and Joseon dynastic rule; people did what they had to do to survive. Let’s introduce two dishes. First, I’ll talk about a fermented stingray dish called 홍어삼합 (Hongeo-Samhap). Then I’ll introduce you to a famous rotting fermented shark dish called Hákarl. 

Fermented Stingray (홍어삼합 hongeo samhap)

Hongeo Samhap

So what’s Hongeo samhap? It’s a species of stingray called skate that has been fermented and put in between pieces of kimchi and grilled pork belly(삼겹살). Of course, you need to try it by itself, and down it with a shot of soju (korean liquor). 

The strong fishy taste starts off with clearing out your sinuses with a whiff of ammonia scented, wasabi-like burning sensation that reminds you of your mother’s bleach in the bathroom cabinet- coupled with a fishy aftertaste. Now don’t forget to tone down the sting by putting the fish in between a spicy layer of kimchi and mouth-watering, charcoal grilled pork belly; dripping in succulent wads of fat. It helps tone down the sting. In the picture I have some makgeoli (막걸리), which is a form of rice wine that’ll have you forget the hellish ordeal once you mix soju with it.  (or heaven if you’re a batshit nutcase like me).


Hakarl hanging in Iceland

If you’re a seafood lover, you’ll love Icelandic cuisine. It’s an island nation that was settled by Vikings long ago, so no surprise! Hákarl sounds nasty, but hey they were Vikings; not for the faint-hearted. 

Hákarl is the famous fermented shark dish of Iceland. I first tried this in a convenience store, where the owner was happy to give me a sample of it. You could literally smell the stench even when the refrigerator was closed shut. The small plastic container had small bits of hákarl which looked exactly like cheese, and could have easily been mistaken so if it weren’t for the stench of bleach, rotten fish, cheese, and urine that is the signature aroma of Hákarl. 

How does it taste? Just like a sudden splurge of rotten wasabi, cheese, fish, and cleaning fluid. It cleans your sinuses. Why do people like me eat this? It’s the rush you get from the disgusting experience. Hate it or love it. 

I had another try for Hákarl when I went into a local restaurant since my flare for culinary masochism hit me again. As you can see, Hákarl once again mascarades itself as inconspicuous pieces of cheese, ready to surprise the unsuspecting tourist. The shreds of white feather-looking food are actually dried fish. It’s a bit like beef jerky, just fishy. The left of the Hákarl is a type of spread made of fish, butter, and potatoes over bread. 

To the right is a piece of salmon over bread. If you’re a salmon lover, you’ll love the freshness of it here. 

Then for the main course are a few slices of lamb on butter and bread. As you can tell, everything and anything remotely delightful for lunch is spread on bread. Or, at least that’s my experience the few days I was there.  So where do I leave you now? Are you going to give it a try or leave with your tail between your legs? If you ever go to either Iceland or South Korea you must try these dishes if your taste buds are as adventurous as your budget. But an extra bit of advice; if you eat the Korean Hongeo-Samhap, the stench will make your clothes smell like fish for a week! Cheers! 

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