In Greenland, Thai cuisine reigns supreme

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.

greenland-thai-foodTo 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.

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Vegetables growing in every single window of a house in Qaqortoq, Greenland.

The waters around Qaqortoq are some of 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.

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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.

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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.

redfish-stamp-greenlandI’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.

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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.

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Qaqortoq: an unlikely place for a Thai restaurant.

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Iced out: China, Japan, and S. Korea hold dialogue on the Arctic

A sign at the Arctic Ocean.

The Arctic Ocean: open to all? Photo: Mia Bennett 2017.

A little over four years ago, as several Asian countries were vying for observer status in the Arctic Council, there was some concern over what might happen if they were not admitted. Shut out from the region’s preeminent intergovernmental body, would China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and India discuss their interests in the Arctic elsewhere, in a forum like the United Nations or the International Maritime Organization? Might they even talk about the Arctic at a conference like the Arctic Circle, which, though based in Iceland, strongly promotes a global envisioning of the Arctic?

These fears were cast aside when the five Asian countries and Italy gained observer status at the Kiruna Arctic Council Ministerial in 2013. However, certain observers like China have been less than thrilled with arrangements in the Arctic Council. Observers, after all, are meant to more or less just watch proceedings. They do not speak unless asked, and though they are expected to contribute to the activities of the Arctic Council, they can never really spearhead initiatives. Observers’ financial contributions for any one project can never total more than 50% of all funding.

Partly in reaction to the strictures of the Arctic Council and partly a reflection of growing synergies between the East Asian countries, last week, Tokyo hosted the Second Trilateral High-Level Dialogue on the Arctic. The meeting involved Japan’s Arctic Ambassador, Ms. Kazuko Shiraishi, China’s Special Representative for Arctic Affairs, Mr. Gao Feng, and South Korea’s Arctic Ambassador, Mr. Kim Young-jun.

The trilateral dialogue, which follows on the prior one held in Seoul last year, emerged out of the Joint Declaration for Peace and Cooperation in Northeast Asia (PDF) issued in November 2015. The declaration gave renewed impetus to regional trust-building and trilateral cooperation following a three-and-a-half year hiatus caused by various political disagreements between the three countries. It lists many points of possible cooperation including nuclear safety, North Korea, the green economy, and, buried somewhere in the middle, the Arctic. Point 34 reads: “Acknowledging the global importance of Arctic issues, we will launch a trilateral high-level dialogue on the Arctic to share Arctic policies, explore cooperative projects and seek ways to deepen cooperation over the Arctic.”

Fast forward to June 8, 2017, when Tokyo successfully hosted the second trilateral dialogue on the Arctic. At the meeting, the three officials and other research associates from Asian institutions working on the Arctic gave presentations on each country’s policy in the Arctic, related challenges, and the potential for cooperation between Japan, China, and South Korea in the region. 
The three Northeast Asian countries also agreed to conduct a joint study to assess pollution and climate impacts in the Arctic, largely in the oceans rather than on land. This study, along with the perspectives contained within the joint statement released following the dialogue, reflects distinct efforts on behalf of the there Asian countries to frame the Arctic at a global scale and as a maritime region. Both efforts help to legitimize Asian involvement in the Arctic by undermining the importance of land, sovereign territory, and national and regional boundaries. The opening paragraph of the joint statement reads,

“Climate change is affecting the vulnerable Arctic ecosystems, the livelihoods of local inhabitants and indigenous communities on a global scale, while the melting of ice brings new opportunities such as natural resources and marine fisheries in the Arctic as well as the opening of sea routes.”

Here, Japan, China, and South Korea are trying to have their cake and eat it, too. The three countries pay lip service to the vulnerabilities of local and indigenous peoples in the Arctic while also claiming that these vulnerabilities exist “on a global scale.”

Additionally, two of the three opportunities that the dialogue mentions are maritime-based: marine fisheries and shipping routes. All three Northeast Asian countries have sizable deep-water fishing fleets, a reason that law professor Erik Molenaar claims is why they, along with Iceland and the European Union, were invited by the five Arctic coastal states to participate in the December 2015 Washington Meeting on High Seas Fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean.

Japan, China, and South Korea don’t just claim to seek resources. The next sentence in the joint statement argues,

“In particular, it is indispensable for the international community to ensure the protection and preservation of the fragile marine environment of the Arctic Ocean, and maintain peace, stability and constructive cooperation based on a rule-based maritime order.”

The three countries clearly see the marine environment as a legitimate space for them to exert influence in line with a “rule-based maritime order,” generally taken to be the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Cleverly, the three countries parrot language from the controversial Ilulissat Declaration in 2008, which was an attempt by the five Arctic coastal states to solidify their control and authority over matters of Arctic governance. In that declaration, the U.S., Canada, Russia, Norway, and Denmark proclaimed, “This framework provides a solid foundation for responsible management by the five  coastal States and other users of this Ocean through national implementation and application of relevant provisions.” Whereas the Arctic Five emphasize the national oversight allowed by UNCLOS, however, the Asian countries underscore the rights and responsibilities of the international community in the world’s oceans provided by the same treaty.

China, Japan, and South Korea also announced that they would report discussions held during the dialogue to the Arctic Council, again trying to place nice with the right people. The Asian countries have come a long way from the days when Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo of China’s People’s Liberation Army declared in 2010, “The Arctic belongs to all the people around the world as no nation has sovereignty over it.” While the idea of the Central Arctic Ocean as a global commons still motivates a great deal of Asian involvement in the region, the language the Asian countries use to justify their presence is now more careful and measured so that their participation is not perceived as undue interference.

Sometime next year, China will host the third Trilateral High-Level Dialogue on the Arctic. In a way, then, perhaps the Arctic Council’s worries from a few years back that the Asian countries would sidestep the body are slowly coming true. Even though China, Japan, and South Korea are reporting their discussions to the Arctic Council, important discussions about the Arctic are taking place in a venue outside of the control of sovereign Arctic states – and without any of their participation or even mere observation.

If the trilateral dialogue ever expands to include other non-sovereign actors – for instance, if South Korea, which is continuing to enhance its cooperation with indigenous peoples’ organizations in the Arctic, decided to invite the Aleut International Association to next year’s meeting – this likely wouldn’t go down very well with the Arctic Council. Then, the body may have to seriously reconsider the role of observers lest other restless ones like the United Kingdom, Spain, and newly admitted Switzerland start forming their own separate dialogues on a region that it seems more and more countries on Earth see as part of their own watery backyard.

Winter in the World’s Coldest City

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A fish vendor drinking berry juice at the local market in Yakutsk. Life is pretty good!

As Memorial Day Weekend kicks off the summer in the United States, what better time than to look back on a winter spent in the world’s coldest city? Yakutsk, the capital of Russia’s Sakha Republic, may or may not be Arctic. I asked a few residents and its designation seemed to be up for debate. The cold, however, is undeniable. The mercury drops to -60° in winter, but while I was there in February, the unusually warm temperatures of -35° and sometimes even -25° made people announce that spring was already here. But no one was taking off their fur hat.

I was told that Yakutsk is so cold because the mountains surrounding the city trap all the frigid air. Situated in the middle of Russia’s largest republic smack dab in the center of the Russian Far East, Yakutsk is one of the world’s most remote cities and has no permanent connection to the outside world. There’s a thoroughly modern airport with international flights to places like China and South Korea, but no bridge to the Russian railroad and highway systems that terminate on the other side of the massive Lena River. Effectively, Yakutsk is a city of 300,000 people that, despite being in the middle of nowhere by most standards still appears vibrantly cosmopolitan in many ways. Yakutsk feels like it’s straddling two continents, Asia and Europe. Some people have narrow green eyes and red hair, while others look more typically Asian. Yet nearly everyone speaks Russian, and many are also practicing Orthodox Christians. More than half of Yakutsk’s cars are imported from Japan and thus have their steering wheel on the right side, but the cars drive on the right side. Buses, however, are always made in Russia and have their steering wheels on the left side – “for safety,” as one person told me.

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A Yakut woman (Yakutka) demonstrating a traditional ceremony at a national restaurant outside Yakutsk.

Yakutsk also feels like a city that is straddling time, for the its built environment fuses its traditional heritage, Soviet past, and Asian-oriented future. Walking north along the main boulevard, there’s a green wooden building sinking into the permafrost with an old poster advertising an emergency number in Soviet times on its side. A few meters away stands a billboard for medical tourism in South Korea. Farther up the boulevard sits a huge concrete monument, likely built in Soviet times, featuring the horse-hitching posts emblematic of the region. North of that lies the Chinese market. The vendors, most of whom come from the northeast Chinese city of Harbin, used to sell their wares outdoors until Chinese money funded the construction of a permanent building. They may not have been as hardy as the locals, who still continue to sell their frozen fish, dairy products, and fruits and vegetables out of doors in winter. At the indoor Chinese market, all sorts of goods made in China are for sale including medicinal products, knock-off traditional Yakut boots (onti), and souvenirs like teacups and plates decorated with Yakut horses.

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A billboard for a Korean medical center next to wooden buildings sinking into the permafrost. Dial “01” for a Soviet emergency.

So what is day to day life like in winter the world’s coldest city?

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Waiting for the bus in platform heels. Who cares if the sidewalks are icy? A low, transparent fog is common in Yakutsk on winter mornings.

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Waiting for the bus into the city at an old Soviet bus stop on the outskirts of Yakutsk.

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Walking around the city is faster in winter because you can take shortcuts across all of the frozen rivers. Think of them as pedestrian ice roads.

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An orthodox church and a whale skeleton (despite Yakutsk being extremely landlocked). Welcome to Russia’s North!

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There is a lot of construction in Yakutsk, a city whose population has grown in recent years even as many other cities in eastern Russian have shrunk.

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Kids playing on top of a giant snow pile on the sidewalk.

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Winter cold doesn’t prevent street food or night life, because you can get shawarma 24 hours a day at this walk-up stall on the main street, Prospekt Lenin.

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Or you might fancy Korean food at this restaurant at the Chinese market. The Korean mixed rice dish, bibimbap, is very popular in Yakutsk and is made more familiar by being called “Корейский плов” (Korean plov, after the Russian/Uzbek rish dish).

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A Korean sauna next to the Chinese market.

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A building financed and designed by a Chinese company in central Yakutsk.

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You can also buy milk in frozen disks. No plastic jugs necessary. One disk was equivalent to about one dollar. Take home a fish taller than you for dinner while you’re at it.

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More fish than people are standing in this photo.

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You can also buy fish lying down on top of a Japanese SUV if you are so “inclined.”

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Although this man was not taking up the poster’s suggestion of eating ice cream, I saw a surprisingly large number of children walking around Yakutsk eating ice cream. One person said it was “because the weather was getting warmer.” On a related note, Finns and Icelanders also consume huge amounts of ice cream, so perhaps there’s a correlation between cold temperatures and cold food consumption.

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Lenin still watches over the main plaza with outstretched arms, while children romp down an ice slide erected for five months out of the year across the street.

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A big open area where cows used to graze that is now surrounded by tall apartment buildings.

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Traditional, low-slung wooden buildings in a neighborhood adjoining the more modern, Soviet part of Yakutsk.

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Dormitories at the North-Eastern Federal University of Yakutsk decorated with murals saying “Victory! 70 Years,” commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Soviet victory in World War II.

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Heating pipes are pretty much everywhere. They can’t be buried underground because they’d melt the permafrost.

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Winter sunrise in Yakutsk with the temperature hovering just over -40. The cold is so extreme that it makes the steam plumes from all of the heating facilities turn horizontal in the sky.

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One way to keep warm at home: Have a pet chow-chow.