A crowd of tourists, bound for the emerald Buddha, climbs out of the long boat on Bangkok's Chao Phraya River, leaving a solitary Westerner behind. Mark Brownstein, in his trademark backward-slung baseball cap, stays aboard until the vessel reaches a pier on the far side, where he hops into a tuk tuk and directs a baffled driver toward Soi Matum. A back alley that most locals don't even know about, Soi Matum is named after a native citrus also known as bael fruit. For some 100 years, the side street's home workshops have created a culinary delight out of dried matum: a tangy, subtly smoky syrupwhich Brownstein is after. One sight of him elicits contented chuckles from Suwattana Yutchamnan, the 67-year-old matriarch who guards the entry to this tightly knit community of a mere 14 families. "Auntie Matum!" exclaims Brownstein. "You have something for me?"
Later that day, Brownstein, a Californian food consultant who specializes in supplying Western chefs with Asian ingredients they could never have imagined working with, is flying to Los Angeles to meet with clients, so he wants to load up on samples. Dipping a finger in a metal pail full of the matum syrup, a tan-orange goo, he takes a taste, rolls his eyes in ecstasy, then excitedly rattles off its culinary possibilities. "Just imagine what could be done with this true Oriental confit," he says. "An amazing glaze for duck breast or foie gras, combined with green apple, anise and cinnamon, or lemongrass and chili! And why not in barbecue sauce or to infuse a crème brûlée?"
Mark Brownstein glimpsesand tastesthe new frontiers of global food. For nearly a decade, he has held one of Asia's more indefinable job titles. A Hong Kong-based exporter who is also a culinary detective, this advance scout of the savory has made it his business to spot unusual foodstuffs of all descriptions, put them in the hands of daring chefs, and concoct the methods and combinations to get his street finds into the world's most sophisticated menus. More recently, his impeccable knowledge and infectious enthusiasm landed Brownstein an expanded role as an ambassador for Asian flavors. Thanks to an hour-long documentary aired in 2005, he has become known in Germany and France as the "Food Hunter." Six new "Hunter" episodes will be coming this fall. "For the Germans who write me about the show, it seems that I take them to another planet," he says. "The big French chefs, too, they are just getting their heads around Asia."
While the first show centered on his gustatory research in the hills of Laos, the new series expands Brownstein's reach. During months of filming, he traipsed through markets, villages and homes in India as well as in Vietnam's Mekong Delta and up-country hills. He forged links between illegal liquor distillers in the forests of Rajasthan and cooperative fish-paste producers in Thai mangrove swamps with the most innovative restaurants of Hong Kong, Shanghai and Los Angeles. He encountered desert capers, Vietnamese artichoke tea, monsoon-moistened coffee, new forms of wild peppercorn and various obscure cousins of the tamarindall destined for the larders of customers who have come to trust Brownstein as a supplier who deals less in bulk than in brilliant inspiration. "Mark has really pushed the envelope, and chefs love playing with someone like this who really knows food," says Jereme Leung, chef-patron of Shanghai's Whampoa Club. At Brownstein's urging, Leung recently created an ice cream made from the thick vinegar of the kadampoli, a sour-tasting Indian pod. "I wouldn't think this was even edible," says Leung, "but Mark has both profound experience and an open mind."
Born into a family that distributed wines, Brownstein was originally a botanist and landscape designer. His interest in food began when he started cultivating organic vegetable gardens in Los Angeles to serve the needs of Californian chefs bent on homegrown gourmet items. But on a trip to Vietnam in 1998, he was so taken with the export potential of Asian ingredients that he decided to pull up stakes with his wife, a legal executive for Warner Brothers, and set up a modest basement office in Hong Kong. Soon enough, he was supplying comestibles like Laotian kaipen (a Mekong seaweed cracker) and wild Philippine honey infused with kalamansi lime (perfect for finishing scallops and salmon) to eateries like Hong Kong's Aqua and Chicago's famed Charlie Trotter's.
More recently, he has been sending Vietnamese wild guava liquor, Indian pandan-flower sugar and coconut vinegar to top L.A. establishments like Wolfgang Puck's Spago, Ludovic Lefebvre's Bastide and David LeFevre's Water Grill, and is starting to target specialty U.S. grocers. But Brownstein has a loftier ambition. "It would be nice to think I can have an impact as some sort of conduit, combining great cooking with a respect for Asia's cultures," he says. That would probably elicit another contented chuckle from Auntie Matum.