Little Asia in Stockholm

The smell of spices from various pots and sizzling pans fill the room. It is lunch hour and the place is packed and noisy.
     At one table, a man in a pinstriped suit is going through some business papers with a dish of chicken in red curry in front of him. Next to him a trendy young couple are having a hot and spicy “tom ka gai”. A mother with her baby tries to squeeze in at the table behind them.
     Lower your eyes and you’ll notice a fascinating variety of shoes; high heels, boots, sneakers, and stylish fashion shoes side by side.
     No, we are not visiting a food court in a Thai department store or a local restaurant in a small soi somewhere in Bangkok. We are in downtown Stockholm!
     Centred around the corner of Olof Palmes gata and Olofsgatan just off Sveavagen this area has over the past few years turned into something of a “Little Asia” in Stockholm. Here, within two blocks of the Swedish capital you will find several Asian restaurants and food shops, a massage parlour with Thai massage, a travel agent specialized on Asia and – needless to say – lots of people from Thailand, China, Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia and other parts of Asia.
     Around the corner from Sawasdee Fast Food, in what looks even more like a soi in Bangkok, you’ll find the more upscale Sawadee Restaurant. Here the prices are higher, the food tastier and the shoes more polished. A dish of chicken red curry which you can have self-served on a plastic plate at Sawasdee Fast Food for a mere 45 kronor will here be served on a china plate at your table for 85 kronor.
     Both restaurants are part of Taiwanese immigrant, Mr. Scott Chen’s Sawadee group which owns a total of six restaurants in Stockholm. Mr. Chen came from Taiwan to Sweden with his father and mother well over twenty years ago when his father was working for Philips.
     When he opened Sawadee Restaurant some ten years ago it was the second Thai restaurant in Stockholm. Today, it is a renowned restaurant among both Swedes and foreigners. Around 80% of the guests are businesspeople. During lunch hours it is as crowded as his smaller and more modest fast food outlet around the corner. Waitresses are running between the tables with glasses of beer and wine and hot plates sending glimpses of chilli, curry and coconut.
     Scott Chen himself is busy finding tables for hopeful customers waiting in line.
     “When people are in this area they think of Asian food. A lot of people, who have been to Thailand, come to this neighbourhood to eat or buy ingredients for cooking Thai food at home. If there is one place here in Stockholm you could call “China Town” or “Little Asia”, this is definitely the place,” he says.
     In his view there is both a benefit and a drawback to having such an area in Stockholm. On one hand it is indeed very nice with a bustling Asian area in the middle of the City but on the other he is a bit worried that if Asians live their whole life here and work within the same area they will not learn any Swedish and not adapt to the Swedish culture. Mr. Chen himself speaks excellent Swedish, which he thinks it is vital for his business, and personally likes traditional Swedish “husmanskost”.
     Over Scott Chen’s years in the restaurant business there has been a tremendous increase in the interest in Asian food in general and Thai cuisine in particular. The change has been quite dramatic both in the number of guests, but even more so in what people are eating and how familiar they are with Thai culture.
     To Mr. Chen the reason is obvious.
     “Hundreds of thousands of Swedes have been to Thailand. Currently about one hundred thousand Swedes are going to Thailand every year and we have a lot of Thai-Swedish couples living in Sweden,” he says.
     “When people return from their holiday they want to relive their memories from the country and the people they are so fond of. So they come here greeting us in Thai, ordering in Thai and telling us special ways they want their Thai food cooked. We don’t have to explain as much as we used to since our guests are very knowledgeable. A lot of Swedes still want their food a little less spicy although they are much more curious and brave nowadays,” he says.
     “However, there are still some things which they rarely like; chicken feet, a whole fish and especially not a whole chicken with the head with the eyes and all which is considered as a delicacy in most parts of Asia. But I am sure they will eat it sooner or later. Fried grasshoppers and cockroaches are not very popular as well! But it will come,” Mr. Chen nods convincingly.
     The growing interest in Thai food and culture also means that it is much easier for Mr. Chen to get everything he needs for his restaurants. When he started out he had vegetables, spices, fresh flowers and other things flown in from Thailand. Now there are companies importing everything he needs. This, of course, makes his Thai chefs very happy since they take so much pride in their job.
     Naturally there are a lot of Thai guests at Sawadee and the Thais living in the neighbourhood visit each others restaurants and help each other with all sorts of things.
     “Sometimes the travel agency, Jade, will leave tickets at the restaurant to be picked up by their customers after six o’clock. It is the same thing as when Swedes today do their post office business in the ICA supermarkets,” Mr. Chen smiles.
     Sawadee has been officially appointed as Thai restaurant. This means that for instance when the Thai Embassy in Stockholm or the Stockholm office of the Tourism Authority of Thailand are having functions they use their catering. Every month Scott Chen’s six restaurants serve around sixty thousand meals. The favourite dishes among the guests are satay with peanut sauce and chicken with green curry. Scott Chen’s company motto is never to serve a meal that doesn’t make the guest totally satisfied.
     Mr. Chen foresees an even bigger expansion and development when it comes to Thai food.
     “Recently I studied Thai fusion food. How it is garnished, presented and served. You do not only eat with your mouth but also with your soul and your brain.”
     “I have heard a rumour that the next phase in the Amazing Thailand campaign is going to focus on Thai food. The Thai Royal Family is very interested in food and it is said that they want to upgrade Thai restaurants around the world. I don’t know whether this is true but to me it makes a lot of sense!”

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