A Tiny Thai Restaurant In Remote Greenland Serves Up Spice (And Whale Skin Soup)

Nov 13, 2019
Originally published on November 13, 2019 8:42 pm

Suriya Paprajong remembers the day he first set eyes on Greenland. It was the middle of winter in 2001 and he had just gotten off a long plane ride from his homeland, Thailand, where the temperature was 104 degrees Farenheit. The temperature in Greenland was -43 degrees. Paprajong didn't have a coat.

"It's very hard when we come to ... Greenland," he recalls. "It's a lot of snow. The body, it's like a shock."

His first Arctic winter may have been a challenge, but 18 years on, Paprajong has built up a life in Greenland, including opening his own restaurant.

The Inbox Cafe: A Little Thai Corner, is an enormously popular restaurant in the remote town of Qaqortoq, in southern Greenland. It's a picturesque regional capital of 3,000 people. Solid-built houses, painted in vibrant hues of red, green and blue, dot the rocky hills overlooking the clear waters of a fjord.

The remote town of Qaqortoq, in southern Greenland, has a population of about 3,000 people.
Claire Harbage / NPR

The restaurant, one of only two in Qaqortoq, shares a building with a shipping company at the end of the main port in town. The restaurant holds about a dozen wooden tables, each set with traditional Thai-style silk and reed placemats and ceramic serving dishes. A portrait of Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn hangs on the main wall.

The Inbox Cafe is more than a bit out of the way for visitors — there are no major roads in Greenland, so you have to take a helicopter or a boat to get to Qaqortoq. The cruise ships bring in customers during the limited summer months, but most of Paprajong's business comes from the locals.

The outside of the restaurant, which shares a building with a shipping company at the end of the main port in town.
Claire Harbage / NPR

Seven nights a week, the tiny kitchen at the Inbox Cafe is filled with the heady scents of lemongrass, garlic and chili. Paprajong's wife, Siripen, juggles curries and noodle dishes on all four burners on the stove. A fresh-caught Arctic redfish, a flaky white fish found in the waters off western Greenland, bubbles in a deep fryer on one of the counters.

Siripen says this fish will be served up with a curry sauce. "This one is Panang sauce," she says, but complains that she will have to use canned coconut milk. "In Greenland, no have coconut tree."

An Arctic redfish in Panang sauce.
Claire Harbage / NPR

Siripen says most Thai staples such as fish sauce need to be shipped in from Denmark, or brought back with them from their annual two-month vacation in Thailand. Getting some fresh ingredients, such as lemongrass and green papaya, can be tough, especially during the cold months. So they've learned to improvise.

Siripen Paprajong, Suriya's wife, cooks in the kitchen of the restaurant.
Claire Harbage / NPR

Paprajong says they've also modified some traditional Thai dishes to suit Greenlandic tastes, including reindeer and whale meat. "And skin of whale," Paprajong says. "It's called Mattaq; it's very good to make soup." Yak and muskox are cooked with soy sauce and chili and garlic. Paprajong says people in Qaqortoq like hot, spicy food. "They say Thai food is good for them when they are in wintertime. It's cold outside, they come to eat spicy food."

The Little Cafe uses seal meat in some of its dishes, but Paprajong says it's not something he would recommend to foreign customers.

One of Paprajong's daughters carves a carrot in preparation for the evening (left). Plates of rice and Pad Thai (right).
Claire Harbage / NPR

Developing a taste for exotic meats has been part of Paprajong's evolution from the hot climes of Asia to the High North. It all started in the Thai coastal city of Pattaya, where he says he was a "champion bartender." One night in 2001, he was approached by a Danish man who offered Paprajong a job at his Thai restaurant in Greenland's capital city, Nuuk. Paprajong says it offered him a chance to make far more money than he was making in Thailand.

Paprajong signed a two-year contract first, then asked his new boss, "Where is Greenland?"

He joined a small community of Thais — less than 200, according to recent figures — who found have their way to Greenland for work. Greenland's population is sparse: There are only about 56,000 people on the island, which is a self-governed territory of Denmark.

Thai decorations adorn the walls of the restaurant.
Claire Harbage / NPR

In 2008, Paprajong made his way to Qaqortoq to work at another Thai restaurant. When it closed two years ago, he opened the Inbox Cafe.

Paprajong says he loves Qaqortoq – its beautiful, if frigid, environment and the people, who have nicknamed him the Thai Eskimo. All of his immediate family are with him, including two daughters, a son-in-law and a granddaughter.

Paprajong's daughters work together in the restaurant.
Claire Harbage / NPR

Paprajong thinks he'll stay forever. "Everybody like to stay, especially my granddaughter." He says she's 5 years old. "She born in Qaqortoq, and she want to stay."

Besides, he says, he's gotten used to the cold winters. "Now, it's no problem." And these days, he says, he owns plenty of coats.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now to a story about curried yak and globalization and jackets - lots and lots of jackets. NPR's Jackie Northam reports from a remote corner of Greenland.

(SOUNDBITE OF OIL BUBBLING)

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Hot oil bubbles up as a whole redfish is carefully lowered into a deep fryer. The heady scents of lemon grass, chile and garlic fill the crowded kitchen of this Thai restaurant. The fresh-caught fish will be served up with a curry sauce.

SIRIPEN PAPRAJONG: This one is a Panang sauce. We use coconut in can. In Greenland, no have coconut tree (laughter).

NORTHAM: This is the Inbox Cafe: A Little Thai Corner. It's at the end of the main port here in the town of Qaqortoq in southern Greenland. It's a picturesque place of 3,000 people. Houses painted in vibrant reds, greens and blues dot the rocky hills overlooking the clear waters of a fjord. This is a long way from Thailand, says the restaurant's owner, Suriya Paprajong. He remembers when he first came to Greenland. He says when he got on a plane in Bangkok, it was 104 degrees Fahrenheit. When he landed in Greenland, it was minus 43 degrees.

SURIYA PAPRAJONG: I came from Thailand to Greenland in winter time without jacket. It's a lot of snow.

NORTHAM: That was 18 years ago. Paprajong came to work at a Thai restaurant in Greenland's capital city, Nuuk. He would be able to make much more money there than he could in Thailand. His wife, Siripen Paprajong, says she was excited to go to Greenland, even if she or many other Thais didn't know where it was.

SIRIPEN PAPRAJONG: In Thailand, nobody know about Greenland. Where you go? Greenland. Finland, England, Iceland - nobody know about Greenland.

NORTHAM: A few years ago, Paprajong moved to Qaqortoq for another job and then opened his own cafe, one of only two restaurants in town. It's a bit out of the way for visitors. There are no major roads in Greenland, so you have to take a helicopter or a boat to get to Qaqortoq. In the summer, the cruise ships bring in customers, but most of his business comes from the locals.

(SOUNDBITE OF RESTAURANT AMBIENCE)

NORTHAM: There are about a dozen wooden tables at the Inbox Cafe, set with Thai serving dishes. Portraits of the Thai royal family hang on the main wall. Siripen says the favorite dish for locals is pad thai.

SIRIPEN PAPRAJONG: Yeah, they like spicy (laughter). Yeah, some want the extra spicy 'cause it's cold weather. It's good with the warm food.

NORTHAM: Siripen says they bring in Thai staples such as fish sauce from Denmark or Thailand. Fresh ingredients such as lemon grass and green papaya are tough to get during the winter months, so they improvise. Paprajong says they've also modified traditional Thai dishes to suit Greenlandic tastes, including using reindeer and whale meat.

SURIYA PAPRAJONG: And also, it's yak. It's very good to cook in Thai way. With soy sauce and chile and garlic, it's very, very good. It's - people, they like.

NORTHAM: Paprajong says he's come to love Qaqortoq, the environment and the people, who have nicknamed him the Thai Eskimo. And he's gotten used to the cold winters.

SURIYA PAPRAJONG: Now it's no problem.

NORTHAM: Do you have a jacket?

SURIYA PAPRAJONG: Of course (laughter) - a lot of jackets now (laughter).

NORTHAM: Jackie Northam, NPR News, Qaqortoq, Greenland.

(SOUNDBITE OF MY MORNING JACKET SONG, "I'M AMAZED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.