Featured image: In Box Thai restaurant in Qaqortoq, Greenland. Photo: Mia Bennett.
A Chinese icebreaker sailing across the Arctic Ocean. Japanese scientists on Svalbard. Korean liquefied natural gas tankers plying the icy waters north of Russia. These are probably the leitmotifs of “Asia in the Arctic” that you may have come across if you’ve been following the Far East’s northward turn.
Yet unfolding at a scale below these geopolitical currents is the unlikely proliferation of Thai restaurants in communities across the Arctic. In Fairbanks, Alaska, at least three Thai restaurants compete for the title of “northernmost Thai restaurant in the U.S.” – and let’s not forget the Korean-run Chinese restaurant 500 miles to the north in Utqiagvik (Barrow), which serves up steaming plates of shrimp with lobster sauce alongside Denver omelettes and pancakes the size of a catcher’s mitt. I haven’t been to Svalbard, but scientists who have traveled there have fondly recounted the Thai food on the Norwegian archipelago. You want pad thai close to 80 degrees north, you got it. It’s likely going to be cooked by one of the many Thai residents there, who make up a plurality of the foreign-born population. Under the rules of the Svalbard Treaty of 1920, visas aren’t required to live and work on Svalbard.
To the west across the Greenland Sea, even more Thai restaurants can be found on Greenland. The capital of this frigid island, Nuuk, has approximately 17,000 residents. The top-rated restaurant in town on TripAdvisor is Charoen Porn, which serves up classic dishes like chicken satay alongside local specialties like “Greenlandic sushi:” whale meat, whale fat (mattaq) and smoked salmon wrapped over rice. In a way, Thai food is to Greenland what pizza is to America. It’s ubiquitous in the bigger settlements, and you can never really go wrong with whatever you order.
Lest you find yourself in Ilulissat, Greenland’s tourist hub and UNESCO world heritage site where massive icebergs calve right off the ice sheet into the blue-green waters of the sea below, you can also savor the sweet and spicy cuisine of Southeast Asia. One of the poshest hotels in the stunningly situated town, Hotel Icefiord, has a few different menus including a Thai one – serving dishes like pad thai with either chicken or, naturally, Greenlandic shrimps and vegetables, just in case you wanted to get a taste of the local seafood with some fish sauce, sugar, and peanuts on top.
Until my trip to Greenland last month, the only place I’d sampled Thai food on the island was Kangerlussuaq back in 2014. Even that tiny town, if you can call it that – it’s more of a science outpost and international airport than an organic settlement – used to serve up stick-to-your-ribs Thai-Greenlandic fusion dishes like muskox curry at the now-renamed Polar Bear Inn. Muskox is a real novelty for tourists in Greenland. As one reviewer of the Polar Bear Inn wrote on TripAdvisor:
“Where in the world are you asked: Sorry, we are out of beef. Do you want musk-ox instead? Very nice pizza – and musk-ox is very tasty.”
On my second trip to Greenland, I wanted to see what Thai chefs did with seafood. I spent most of time in Qaqortoq, a coastal town near the southern tip of Greenland. The country stretches so far south that it reaches well past the bottom of Iceland, lining up with the the Shetland Islands and Helsinki on a map. I was stunned to see people growing sun-loving plants like tomatoes and chili peppers here. Here, the weather is about the closest you can get in Greenland to Thailand’s balmy beachside breezes.
The waters around Qaqortoq are some of the richest in the world, thick with cod, haddock, and shrimp. The fish species are changing, too, as the waters warm and cold-loving creatures move north. Fishermen sell their hauls at the local market each day, and they also sell directly to the handful of restaurants in town including “In Box – A Little Thai Corner” – Qaqortoq’s Thai restaurant that is very, very easy to miss.
I didn’t see a Thai restaurant immediately upon docking in Qaqortoq. But being in a decent-sized settlement in Greenland, I knew there had to be a Thai restaurant somewhere among the brightly painted houses. A quick Google turned up In Box, which is aptly located inside an uninviting metal warehouse at the small port.
One night, after trying not to eat too much at the nightly group dinner (where the waiter was Thai), I headed down with a friend to the port try out the Thai food on offer. We passed a sign that warned of heavy machinery and moving vehicles, and then entered the warehouse through a thin metal door. Another series of doors led to what looked like it might be an office for tracking shipping containers, but had a golden Buddha statue outside. Mouthwatering smells and uproarious laughter flowed out of the restaurant even though it was close to 9pm on a weekday.
We opened the door and a group of well-heeled American and French tourists were celebrating a birthday. We took a table in the snug yet lavishly decorated restaurant. There were more posters, trinkets, and artifacts then one would find in a Thai restaurant in the States, even though I imagine it’s easier to procure such things there.
I’d met the owner the day before when I was checking out the restaurant, and he had recommended that I try one of their specials, “Red fish choo chee:” redfish in a coconut curry sauce. Redfish is a sweet, white fish native to the waters around Greenland, prized enough that it has made it onto a postage stamp. The owner informed me that the fish would come whole, bone-in and deep fried. My companion ordered pad thai, and we were on our way.
As the food was being prepared, I asked the owner a question that, I apologized, I was sure he’d heard a million times before: “So exactly how did you get from Thailand to Greenland?”
The owner, Suriya Paprajong, said it all started over a decade ago when he was working as a bartender in Pattaya, a beachside resort town 60 miles southeast of Bangkok. He had won a contest as Asia’s best bartender and was showing off his tricks to a businessman who’d come in. On that fortuitous day, the businessman asked Paprajong, “Do you want to work in Greenland?” and Asia’s best bartender replied yes.
For years, he worked in Nuuk at a restaurant. I’m not sure which one, but it could have been the long-running Thai restaurant there, which employs some 16 Thai people. The bartender was never able to bring his wife and children, though, which visibly pained him. He was able go home for two months a year, which perhaps helped make the decision to stay in Greenland for most of the year easier given the relatively high wages he could earn.
Eventually, an opportunity opened for Paprajong to work at a Thai restaurant called Ban Thai in Qaqortoq. Importantly, the owner would allow him to bring his family. For the former bartender originally from a town close to Laos, this was the start of something bigger. He brought over his wife and children and they worked contentedly in the Thai restaurant until one day, the owner decided to pack up his bags and move back to Thailand. Paprajong, however, felt at home in Greenland, now that his family was with him. They decided to stay and go it alone.
With his family, Paprajong started their own Thai restaurant, called In Box, down at the port and began serving up all sorts of Thai dishes to locals and tourists alike. They managed to save enough to buy a nice house close to the helicopter pad, right near the sea. The restaurant clearly is doing well: a job posting I came across for a Thai cook assistant at In Box pays 18,000 DKK a month ($2,800). Paprajong and his family still go home two months out of the year in January and February, after the busy Christmas holiday season when Greenlanders have spent a lot of their money, and when most of the tourists are gone.
Paprajong seems remarkably integrated into Qaqortoq – so much so that he doesn’t really wish to return to Thailand. When the Thai restaurateur walks down the street, locals greet him with “Hello, Thai Eskimo!” and “Hello, aatak!” – Greenlandic for grandfather. He now has a granddaughter here, who goes to the local nursery school and is learning to speak Greenlandic. When Bumibol, the beloved Thai king, passed away last year, the mayor of Qaqortoq lowered the flag to half mast. Paprajong was so moved, he recollected with his hand on his heart, that he walked directly over to the mayor’s house to say thank you.
“Greenlandic people, they’re very warm,” Paprajong said, smiling. It may be cold here, but perhaps the similarly sunny, welcoming dispositions both Thai and Greenlandic people can have make Thai migrants feel remarkably at home at this polar outpost. And for me, having spent eight years living in Los Angeles, which has the largest population of Thais outside of Thailand and an extraordinary number of restaurants serving everything from boat noodles to pineapple rice at all hours of the day, I also felt at home here in the Arctic.
A few minutes after our conversation with the owner, the food arrived. The sweet and flaky redfish paired excellently with the creamy, coconutty sauce. There were lots of vegetables elegantly placed on top, too, which was a welcome addition given the meat-and-potatoes-heavy Greenlandic-Danish cuisine I’d been eating for the past few nights. My friend’s pad thai was also a winning dish.
Long story short? If you’re ever in Greenland, be sure to try the Thai food – and chat with the owner while you’re at it.