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.


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.

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.

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.

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.


Qaqortoq: an unlikely place for a Thai restaurant.


Chasing electric blue icebergs in Greenland


Blue iceberg with the fall colors of the tundra in the background.

Last week, China’s sole icebreaker, Xue Long (Snow Dragon), completed its first voyage through the Northwest Passage. The Ukrainian-built vessel is now sailing off the coast of Chukotka, making its way back from Nome across the Bering Sea towards Shanghai.


Chinese icebreaker Xue Long‘s position in the Bering Sea on September 25, 2017, en route to its home port in Shanghai. Base map and data: MarineTraffic.

While Xue Long was capturing headlines, I was on a scaled-down journey across a defrosting seascape. As part of the Arctic-FROST annual network meeting, 17 other Arctic social scientists and I took a turbo-prop plane from Kangerlussuaq, the main international airport in Greenland, to Narsarsuaq, an old U.S. military base in the southern, subarctic portion of Greenland. Soon after landing, we hopped on two boats and began speeding down the very fjord that Viking explorer Erik the Red sailed up in 985 AD. The weather on this late summer Tuesday was sunny and crystal clear, but the strong, direct light made it difficult to photograph the occasional icebergs we glimpsed.


Icebergs in the sun on our first day in Greenland.

After two hours, we arrived in Qaqortoq, a settlement of 3,000 people that sits close to the ocean. Qaqortoq is a little less than 100 kilometers from the nearest calving glacier, so there are fewer icebergs in the waters around town. I noticed only one iceberg in the harbor, which I tracked over the course of our five-day stay.


Only one iceberg was visible in the harbor.


Many of the icebergs we saw along our boat journey originated from this part of the ice sheet, close to 100 miles from Qaqortoq. Map: Google Maps.

After that first sunny day in town, sleeting, pounding gray rainstorms coming off the Atlantic Ocean dominated the skies for two and a half days. I half wondered if they were related to the hurricanes that had swept through the Caribbean in the days prior. Despite all the rain, by the evening of the third day the iceberg still hadn’t budged or altered its shape.

The next morning, the iceberg was still stuck in place but greatly diminished in size. What used to look like a fairly proud and majestic iceberg standing alone in the waters off Qaqortoq was now a sad little overgrown pancake, a pale lumpfish floating on top of the water.

On our fifth and final day, I woke up and looked out the window as usual. The little iceberg I had been watching for days was gone. I was a bit sad that it had basically ghosted, but alas, it was our last day in town, too, so maybe the timing was right. It was 7:30 am, and our boats would depart in 90 minutes to sail back up the fjord to Narsarsuaq, near the ice sheet’s edge. That gave me just enough time to go on a short trail run up to the top of the mountain above town. I ran as high as I could in the limited time and was rewarded with a phenomenal view inland towards the ice sheet.

While resting in the crisp, still air, I heard a sharp crackling sound. It was a glacier calving somewhere in the distance. Then it was quiet again, without a single bird or insect interrupting the stillness. Another 60 seconds later, the glacier calved again. The sound of a million dominoes collapsing echoed across the moutnains. Even from my high vantage point, I couldn’t see the glacier. But in a way, it was even more magical and mysterious to only be able to hear it.


From here, I could hear the glacier calving but not see it.

After the cryospheric cacophony ceased, I scrambled over a few more boulders to the other side of the peak to look over the fjord to the south. And there I saw it. The shrunken iceberg was floating there, far from where it had been 24 hours prior. It must have started its journey under the cover of night. Oddly, it was floating up a different fjord back in the direction of the ice sheet. Maybe it just wanted to discover its roots.


The lone iceberg that set sail from Qaqortoq on the same day we departed.

I left the iceberg to its own devices and returned back to town, just in time to get on the boat. The weather that day was gray and misty: ideal weather for photographing hulking chunks of blue, white, and black ice gliding in the milky-green fjord. Although less than a week had passed since we first sailed down the fjord, heading back up, the colors of the tundra had clearly changed. The red, orange, and gold hues of autumn replaced the green and yellow shades of summer, providing a striking backdrop to the ice.

The icebergs got bigger as we neared the ice sheet. We docked in Narsaq, a small town with a slaughterhouse and catering school. From the vantage point of the catering school’s dining room, the harbor looked like someone had dumped a misshapen ice tray into the water.


Icebergs in the harbor at Narsaq.

After lunch, we piled back into our boats and left Narsaq. We passed a snowy-white iceberg in the harbor that looked like a can of flavorless Pringles potato chips rotated 45 degrees.

Heading back up towards the fjord, we first passed a creepy iceberg that looked like something Tim Burton might have dreamed up. Looking into the skeletal formation felt like gaping into the mouth of a baleen whale.

A few hundred meters up ahead, a massive turquoise blue iceberg sat smack dab in the middle of the fjord, where sheep grazed precariously on the steep sides of the mountains. The curving sides of the iceberg mirrored the topography around it.

The iceberg dwarfed our boats as we approached. It must have been four or five stories tall. We circled around it, motors off. This made it quiet enough to hear the rapid drip of melting ice from the bottom ridge of the iceberg that hung above the water’s surface. Sailing around the iceberg was a surreal experience. The colors morphed from teal to blue to white as we sailed around it. Circumnavigating the iceberg, if you will, took several minutes.


The iceberg dwarfs one of the boats from our mini Arctic-FROST flotilla in southern Greenland.

The electric blue color of the ice meant that the iceberg was probably old – maybe hundreds of thousands of years old. As new snow, frost, and ice are deposited on top of a glacier, their weight compresses everything underneath. This pressure squeezes out the air that fills the minuscule gaps between millions of snow crystals inside a glacier. Since light can no longer reflect off the surface of compacted snow and ice crystals, it has to travel deeper into the ice until it reaches a reflective surface. Over the course of this path, weaker, redder light gets absorbed by the ice. Blue light has enough energy to keep going until it finally finds a surface and bounces off, producing the stunning colors seen in the photos below. One paper poetically refers to this hue as “subnivean blue light,” with subnivean meaning “under the snow.” Even rarer than blue icebergs are “emerald icebergs,” discussed by the New York Times in this 1993 article. Only 1 in 1,000 icebergs are green, and they are all from Antarctica, where the sea water is richer in organic matter like algae.

(P.S. Bonus points if you just realized what a great coincidence it is that the name of the band behind the classic 80’s anthem, Electric Blue, is called Icehouse.)

The epitome of our journey chasing the ice was, of course, getting as close as we could to the edge of the ice sheet. As we kept sailing towards the Qooqut glacier, the ice chunks got smaller and more frequent. A bitter wind blasted our faces. One crew member said, “Getting close to the ice sheet – it’s like opening the door to the freezer.” About three kilometers from the ice sheet’s edge, we could sail no further. The captain cut the engine and the wind ceased. We bobbed in the icy water and stared into the blank white vastness of the ice sheet in front of us for a good twenty minutes. A few people took some of the thousand-year old ice out of the water and broke it up into cubes to have with a few celebratory sips of bourbon. We had made it to the source of the ice.


Icebergs calving off the Qooqut Glacier in southern Greenland.


Inuk V in the Qooqut fjord in southern Greenland.

Tales of the unexpected: Inuit shepherds in Greenland


Workers during a break in Qaqortoq. Photo: Mia Bennett

In Greenland, there’s a joke that if you go out to dinner with a Greenlandic people, there’s five people: mom, dad, the two kids, and an anthropologist. Be that as it may, many social scientists who study the Arctic have never been to Greenland given its relative remoteness. It’s only possible to fly to the world’s largest island from Denmark and Iceland, and flights cost a pretty penny. Climate change scientists receive millions of dollars to study the Greenland Ice Sheet, which covers 80% of the country’s surface and has the potential to dramatically raise global sea level should it continue melting as models predict. In contrast, social scientists just don’t have as many opportunities to research Greenland’s 56,000 inhabitants and the many issues that affect them.

So it should come as no surprise that when the Arctic-FROST research network decided to hold its annual meeting in Qaqortoq, a settlement of about 3,000 people in southern Greenland, I jumped at the chance to apply. Arctic-FROST is a National Science Foundation-funded project based out of the University of Northern Iowa that aims to build an international, interdisciplinary collaborative network of environmental and social scientists, local educators, and community members from all eight circumpolar countries. While I had attended a previous Arctic-FROST workshop in St. Petersburg, Russia, I was over the moon when I found out I was accepted to the workshop in Qaqortoq, whose theme focused on community sustainability in the Arctic while importantly taking place in a small, northern settlement. A few months later, I found myself standing with 17 other eager polar researchers at the airport in Copenhagen, meeting each other at the gate before boarding our ruby red Air Greenland plane to Kangerlussuaq. 


Air Greenland’s sole Boeing 757 awaiting passengers on the tarmac at Copenhagen Airport. Photo: Mia Bennett

As some of you might remember, I traveled to Greenland in August 2014 to assist with hydrological fieldwork on the ice sheet. With my research group from UCLA, led by Professor Laurence Smith, we were studying the turquoise blue rivers that form each summer on top of the ice as temperatures rise. It was an otherworldy feeling to walk on top of the part of Greenland that is still marked as “unexplored” on contemporary maps of the country. Yet spending most of my time either on the ice sheet or in the aviation and research hub that is the town of Kangerlussuaq meant that I didn’t get the chance to experience life in a larger Greenlandic settlement with a history that predated World War II.


Qaqortoq, with a cruise ship in the harbor. Photo: Mia Bennett

The past week in Qaqortoq with Arctic FROST changed all that. While our experience was still admittedly far from that of the average Greenlander – staying in a plush hotel, enjoying elaborate dinners, and having an espresso machine on demand throughout the workshop – we had many chances to learn from locals and hear what issues really matter to Greenlanders. One big takeaway was that even though our theme was sustainability, this isn’t an issue that is put front and center in municipal meetings. People in Qaqortoq seemed focused on issues with a more pressing timeframe, like supporting and strengthening residents’ mental health, improving children’s educational outcomes, and halting outmigration to Nuuk, Copenhagen, and beyond.


Ewes, and a lone ram, after being separated from their lambs at a farm in Qassiarsuk, Greenland. Photo: Mia Bennett

Up the fjord in nearby Qassiarsuk – the very location where Viking Erik the Red established his seat of power at the end of the 10th century – the most urgent issue on the late summer day in September when we visited was rounding up the lambs for slaughter. When most people think of the hunting and eating patterns of the indigenous Inuit of Greenland, whales, seals, and fish come to mind. They don’t imagine Inuit successfully raising hundreds of sheep on the same lands where Norse colonies, which also had sheep and other animals like cows and pigs, died out hundreds of years ago. Even more mind-bogglingly, the lambs they raise are eventually herded onto a small vessel which sails up an iceberg-filled fjord to a nearby town with a sleek and sterile government-sponsored slaughterhouse.

Video kindly provided by Thorvald Bernhardtsen. All rights reserved by him.

Those were just a handful of eye-opening experiences I had over the past seven days, which I will be writing about over the coming weeks. Stay tuned for more – including my second time trying Thai-Greenlandic fusion cuisine.