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 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 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.