If one should ask me what use there was in climbing, or attempting to climb the world’s highest peak, I would be compelled to answer ‘none.’ — George Mallory
You know those awkward moments where you’re at a friend’s dinner party, or at a restaurant, and something is placed before you that you don’t like the look of? Where an internal battle rages – whether to offend your host and pass, or munch down on it anyway, come what may? That decision governed by the answer to one and only one question : “How bad could it be?”
I know how bad it could be. I’ve tasted it. Twice.
Several years ago, while I was still living in Australia, I heard about Hákarl. “The world’s most disgusting food-stuff that you can eat and still live” was how I remember it being described. Put in less-poetic terms, it’s putrefied shark meat, it’s from Iceland, and it’s absolutely awful. Growing up a very fussy eater, somehow in my adult life I have swung the other way – trying everything, just in case there was something amazing out there I hadn’t tasted, making that a personal mission. You name the body part, bizarre root vegetable, I’ve probably nommed it down, or at the very least, wanted to. But to suddenly be aware that the adventurous culinary path did indeed have a limit? I had to try it.
Of course, at the time (and probably still today) it was nearly impossible to get the putrefied (i.e. cured by shoving slabs of poisonous shark meat underground for several months) flesh of a Greenland or basking shark past Australian quarantine officials. Even if that were something easy to do, the noxious, rotting, urea-dripping, formerly poisonous carrion would need to be transported cold all the way from Iceland to Sydney – something which sounded a little out of my regular food-curiosity budget.
Flash forward : late 2013…
Now based on London, I found myself sharing the office of a food industry startup in the midst of a promotion involving insect recipes. Naturally, during the course of the ‘crazy stuff we’ve eaten’ discussion that ensues when one is sharing a plate of ant tacos and cricket pad Thai with a couple of gents, the conversation turned to Hákarl.
A lightbulb suddenly tinked on – I was now living close enough to Iceland that maybe, just maybe, rotten shark was something one could procure without much drama.
Within minutes, someone in Iceland was packing 100grams of the stuff into a box full of cold packs, my address plastered on the front. It arrived. It was eaten.
How did it taste? I’ll get to that in a moment…
Jump to last Friday…
Working in a different office on the opposite side of town, the Swedish gentleman sitting beside me posted a video of a bunch of non-Swedes failing dismally at eating Surströmming. I remembered seeing the Australian comedy duo, Hamish & Andy, doing a piece about it – the Swedish equivalent of Hákarl (if I may be so bold) except it’s rotten herrings, it comes in a can, and is a lot easier to get hold of. After my experience with Hákarl in November, I felt I had a story to tell, however with a proud Swede on my right, and an equally proud Norwegian on my left, the old rivalries (mixed with a dose of Australian bravado) meant suddenly Hákarl’s title of “world’s most disgusting food-stuff” was being brought into question.
Of course, nobody but myself had ever tried one of the two morsels in question — it seemed only right that I take the initiative to settle the discussion for once and for all. Getting hold of the Surströmming was even easier than I could ever have imagined it to be : there’s a Scandinavian deli only 100 metres from where we were arguing, and still a half an hour left before they closed for the day. You can probably figure out the rest.
To cut a long story very short, I have now consumed both countries’ rotten seafood delicacies, and feel I’m now one of the few people out there who can speak with good authority as to which is indeed The Worst.
I took good notes during November’s Hákarl experience, and am still feeling very fresh from the recent Surströmming tasting, occurring mere hours ago (I can still smell it on my hands in a few places the soap ceased helping). Regardless of any question as to the clarity or errors that might creep into recalling two experiences now separated by a few months, there’s a clear winner. Of that there is no question. In the battle between Hákarl and Surströmming for the title of “World’s Foulest Food”, I can speak with complete confidence as to which is indeed the worst. Rather than any further long-winded narrative, I’m going to table it, side-by-side, blow-for-blow, gulp-for-gulp :
(Note – I did attempt to shoot video for both tastings, but both attempts were met with bitter failure. Once those packs were opened, there was no mental space left for worrying about camera operation – if there were to be a next time, I promise to rope in a nostril-blocked friend to shoot.)
Ease of procurement
Tricky and expensive.
Easy and cheap, like heroin.
Feeling going in…
Nervous dread, akin to a dentist’s waiting-room.
Cocky. I was all: “Been there, done that – this won’t be worse… 80% of Hákarl at its baddest.”
An immediate increase in the feeling of dread as an intense ammonia smell filled the room, followed by deep regret I hadn’t done this outside.
Was very prepared this time, and thought I was really clever utilising the balcony. The fermentation pressure build-up in the can sprayed liquid out everywhere, but I’d done the reading, and did all of the opening inside a plastic bag. Still feeling cocky at this point – for about 0.5 seconds.
Terrifying. Very, very strong ammonia smell, mixed in with a smell that’s like the worst thing you’d ever smell down at the docks where fishing boats come in, multiplied by around 100. Stomach was fine with it – I felt a deep dread that I was about to eat what was causing the smell, but my stomach was behaving itself – no gags.
Much, much worse than anticipated. Less ammonia, more of a shit smell at first, hints of sulfur, before hitting my nostrils with a overwealming assault of that ‘death’ smell. That, and a few hints of the same ‘where fishing boats come in’ smell – there were notes that were quite similar to that of Hákarl, but only a few. A very different beast. Involuntary gagging began within two seconds of the can opening.
The ammonia smell definitely got worse the closer you put the food to your mouth, but it did not change much over time, in either intensity or flavour. Once you know what Hákarl smells like – it makes you wish you were dead – find small comfort in the knowledge that that’s all you’re going to be dealing with.
The smell only got worse over time, and changed its tone constantly. Just as you thought you were getting a handle on one aspect of it, something else would hit you. There were simply too many smells for my brain to cancel out or keep control of, all of them 10/10 horrible, all of them building over time.
I mananaged to clean the kitchen out fine, the smell gone completely within 20 minutes with the help of the stove-top extractor fan and some lavender-scented bathroom air-freshener.
Unsure, though already the linger time has beaten Hákarl by a long shot. I can’t get the stuff off my hands. I made the mistake of trying to film the experience on my phone, and smudged some juice on the touch-screen at one point – my phone now smells too, even though I’ve wiped that spot down with several chemicals. I don’t think it’ll ever die from whatever it touched. How do you kill something that’s already dead? Oh god. Make it stop.
Clean-looking white cubes. Not scary at all while they were in their vacuum pack. Deceptively safe-looking until the point you snip open the package and let the smell out.
Once the can was open, the contents looked exactly like what it was : a sludge of rotten fish. There was nothing appetizing about the presentation. Nothing. It looked as bad as it smelled. (Sorry, as it smells. SMELLS. Present tense. Make it stop…). At least it wasn’t pretending, not like Hákarl. Even if you can’t smell it, Surströmming looks like something you don’t want to eat.
Rubbery at first, but more powdery/melty as you chew. Interesting texture.
Exactly as you’d imagine sloppy, wet, rotten fish would be, complete with bones, skin, oily bits, sticky bits, gross bits, fins, lots of watery rotten-brine mixture…
I did as the literature suggests – placed the first piece in my mouth and inhaled deeply through the nose, experienceing the icy – almost menthol? – burn of the ammonia up my nostrils. Wholly unpleasant based on how terrible the smell was at this point, but an unexpected novelty element with the burning. There was a sense of danger in this – nothing that does what that gas did to my nose should be going inside my body. I could still feel the burn of it hours later. Oddly, the flesh itself didn’t taste so bad – not if you forget the smell for a moment. Just… fishy. The smell was disproportionately terrible compared to the taste by a factor of at least 1000.
By the time I had the first piece in my mouth, trying to bite through the skin/bone/flesh, the juices splattering over my face and hands, my stomach had had enough. There was no time to savour or think about the experience. I knew I only had seconds left, as my chest was already hunched and heaving. The only strange thing I did notice was that the flesh itself felt almost fizzy on my tongue at one point, like bubbles in beer. This didn’t help anything. It was all wrong. All so very wrong. The smell. THE SMELL.
I took my time. The fact that I wasn’t already puking, and had survived the nostril thing, gave me time to note the textural change from rubber to powder as I got through it. It’s not like I was smiling though – this wasn’t pleasant. It was horrible. I kept thinking of that line from Harry Potter describing the experience of encountering a ‘Dementor’ – such misery that I wasn’t certain I’d ever feel cheerful again.
My stomach was already fighting the experience very hard, way before the flesh even got to my mouth. I had to keep the chewing to a minimum. My time was up.
Nothing exciting: I swallowed. I stood there in that cloud of ammonia stench, bracing myself for something worse to happen, but nothing did. I felt truly horrible, staring blankly, trying to recover from the ordeal. I questioned why I’d done this in the first place. The smell filled my head and soul, and I couldn’t escape it – that ammonia death smell was inside me now. I was its bitch.
My time was long over by the time I got up to swallowing. As I began to swallow, the retching began. I continued to try, and believe at one point I managed to get the mouthful about half-way down my throat, but it wasn’t long before I was bent over the plastic bag puking Surströmming back into the can. Then, an extended period of dry-retching. It took about a minute before I had the presence of mind to force myself away from the source of the smell, which was doing most of the ongoing damage. As for the herring, I doubt I digested any more than a fraction of a gram of the stuff in the end. My body simply said “NO” to Surströmming.
I felt dirty and afraid. I wondered when the sickness would start. I wondered why I’d put myself through that. I wondered how far away the bin would need to be from my house so that I never had to smell that ammonia/fishy stench again once I threw it out. I thought about my own mortality, and how fragile life was.
There was no time for reflection. As soon as I’d finished puking, I ran inside, gathered five or six plastic bags, and set about wrapping up the source of the death-smell. That stench was just seemed to keep growing in volume and menace similar to the black-cloud monster thing from ‘Lost’, spreading out like a nuclear fallout that badly needed to be contained, and fast. There was a desperation and urgency to removing all trace of it from my house, from my life. I was down the street within 60 seconds, where I carefully placed the six-times-wrapped-but-still-opened can upright at the bottom of a bin that I wouldn’t smell when they emptied it. I feel sorry for those garbage men. I really do, but this had quickly become a self-preservation issue, consequences be damned.
My skin felt greasy all afternoon, and I had a sort of ‘after-smell’ going on for the rest of the day. My nostrils felt like they were a little sunburned, and along with the slight burn feeling, a very slight ammonia smell lingered, though that could have been in my head. I still can’t bring myself to remember the precise smell of Hákarl even now – it was a scarring experience, and one I’d rather not repeat.
I’m mostly just hoping that I don’t end up in a discussion where somebody claims to have found something worse to eat than Surströmming. Surely this is the limit. It was for me at least. I don’t think I’m going to get over it for a while, though fortunately as I didn’t digest any of it, I don’t feel sick or anything now. With the Hákarl I felt a bit funny all afternoon, but with this, if I could get the last of the smell off my fingers/phone, I’d be feeling no adverse physical effects now, only mental ones.
There is no reason for people to feel they need to eat Hákarl for anything other than a dare, or to discover their persoal extremes as I have. It was wholly unpleasant. However, now that I have tasted Surströmming, I can at least appreciate that there was a certain degree of ‘crafting’ in Hákarl. The smell, as bad as it was, was an interesting one which felt ‘human made’, almost like it had been created in a lab. Regardless of how repulsive the smell is, looking back now I feel like there’s some intent behind it in a strang sort of way. Plus, for to keep the title of World’s Worst, it needs to actually taste bad. It didn’t taste that bad – it merely smelled bad. If you pinch your nose and eat Hákarl, it’s nowhere nearly as bad as pinching your nose and eating Surströmming.
There is no reason for people to feel they need to eat Surströmming at all, ever, for any reason. If I had to chose between eating Hákarl every day of my life or eating Surströmming one more time, I would still go with the daily shark. It was horrible in so many more ways that Hákarl wasn’t. I walked away from the shark dish in November feeling like I’d touched the edge of the Universe, but in reality, I hadn’t come even close. This is by far the worst thing a human can ever eat. I’ve accidentally eaten dog-shit before – this was worse. I’ve accidentally sipped some urine that had been congealing in a plastic drink bottle for several months – this was worse (but only just – in a remarkably similar ball-park). Don’t try this, thinking it’s going to be cool. It’s not going to be cool trying something so gross. It’s going to be horrible. You are going to vomit. You are going to wish you’d never gotten yourself into this in the first place. There’s no silver-lining to the experience, apart from the thought that perhaps, eating it with Swedish locals, already fully tanked on very, very strong clear spirits, you’re just drunk enough that you keep more of it down than I did. Horrible. Words can’t describe it.
The final result?
Surströmming is, by far, the world’s most foul thing designed to be eaten by human beings.
Congratulations, Sweden, and IN YOUR FACE, ICELAND!
The Swedes have this one completely sealed. There’s something truly horrendous about Hákarl that I don’t want to take away from our Icelandic friends – it *is* incredibly horrible, and I love the crazy way it’s prepared – but the fact that I walked into the Swedish sitting thinking it might be easier, only to be uncontrollably gagging within seconds of the can hissing its vile stench out into the world? No. Just, no.
Hákarl is definitely a 10-out-of-10 experience for people looking to expand their culinary horizons all the way down into the darkest depths of putrefied-shark depravity, and that’s fine. If you can get your hands on some, knock yourself out. Have a laugh with your friends. Brag about it, as I did, on Facebook. But know, deep in your heart of hearts, that while you just gulped down an ammonia-soaked 10-out-of-10, that just across the sea, there lurks an eleven…