It’s a typically chilly April evening in Lerwick, but a hardy group of Shetlanders have crowded into a tent outside local Thai restaurant Phusiam to take part in a Songkran (New Year) celebration. Inside Phusiam a table is spread with Thai delicacies: aromatic curries, samosa and, for the sweet toothed, sticky rice cakes and banana fritters. Thai women, clad in brightly coloured traditional dresses, circulate among the more soberly attired locals. One of them stops to pour flower petals and water over a small statue of the Buddha which stands at doorway of the restaurant.
This evening’s celebration is not just a celebration of Thai New Year – it also marks a red letter day for owner Sopha Phosoongneon – 30 years since her arrival in Shetland. Sopha vividly remembers her arrival in Sumburgh. “As the plane landed, I was thinking of my home and my tears fell like tap water.” she recalls. “It was a beautiful landscape, but I was so far from home.”
Thirty years later, Sopha describes the local community as being “very kind”. She adds “I love Shetland now. It’s too hot for me in Thailand – it can get up to 44 degrees – that’s just too much and I can’t cope with it.”
Phusiam chef, Yura Kamcharoen agrees. “I like it here because there’s no traffic. The people here in Shetland are very kind and they are more polite than in Thailand. I like it here because it’s a quiet life and there is no pollution. You don’t need to worry about anything.”
Yura explains that Phusiam’s Songkran festival has been specially adapted to suit the local climate and culture. “In Thailand, people throw big bags of water and flour over people. It’s not really possible to do that here, because it’s too cold – I don’t think that people would be very happy with us!”
Shivering a little in the freezing night air, I have to agree with him. The Thai dishes have also been slightly adapted to suit the Shetland palate. “This isn’t really what we would eat at New Year, because the dishes we have are very spicy. We think it would be too hot for Shetland people – they wouldn’t like it.”
Yura goes on to talk about the special method of Thai cooking. “Thai food has to be cooked at a very high temperature, so we use different type of cookers – water cookers.” Intrigued, I have to admit that I have no idea what he is talking about, so Yura kindly gives me a tour of the kitchen. The cooker is unlike any I have seen before: the hob is submerged in a tray full of water, so that the dishes are effectively cooked in water. “This means that the food we cook here really is made in the authentic Thai way,” Yura assures me. “Many of our ingredients are brought from Thailand too – except for the meat and fish, of course!”
Outside in the tent, the evening entertain-ment programme is kicking off. A young man in traditional Thai costume introduces himself as Thor, master of ceremonies for the evening. He asks the assembled company if they have enjoyed the food and is met with applause and sated grunts of satisfaction. He assures us: “You’re already full with your stomach – now you’ll be full with your eyes!”
Thor begins by teaching the audience a traditional Thai greeting, before going on to describe Thai New Year traditions: “Thai people usually travel to see family at New Year. They go to the temple, and gently pour water on the Buddha. While they are doing this, they ask for good things. Thailand is an agricultural country, so our New Year coincides with spring – we clean our homes and we visit the temple. The water we throw on each other is a symbol of cleanliness too.”
After a Thai dance, (performed by three exquisitely dressed dancers) it is time for some Thai boxing. Thor explains that in Thai boxing, every part of the body is used: not just the fists, but the chin, elbows, knees and legs.
Thai boxers, Ben Vickers and Wojtek Nartowics have flown from London to take part in the event. Their grace and agility does not mask the power and strength of their movements. Perhaps unsurprisingly the audience is silent when Thor asks if anyone in the audience would like to come forward and try their luck with one of the boxers!
Phusiam’s Songkran provided a taste of a fascinating culture. A hearty khob-kun-Krub to all at Phusiam for organising such a great event!
All food at Phusiam is freshly made to order. From mid -May onwards there will be a buffet meal available on Mondays and Wednesdays from lunch time till 9am.
Photos: Dave Donaldson