A Culinary Explorer's Global Quest
Simon Browne has wandered Europe's ballrooms and Asia's backwoods in search of recipes
KEJAMAN LASAH, MALAYSIA — SIMON HUGO BOUSQUET BROWNE is a gastronomic daredevil.
"I'll try anything at least once," he says. Well, almost anything. "In a market in Sulawesi [Indonesia], they were selling small dogs," he recalled. "I just couldn't get myself to eat dog."
Here, two days' journey by motor launch, pickup truck, and canoe into the thick jungle of Sarawak state in Malaysia, Mr. Browne was stalking the Malaysian rain forest for new recipes and exotic edibles.
For five months already, the jovial 36-year-old Englishman had pursued a culinary odyssey, researching unusual victuals for a planned travelogue/cookbook that will trace the movement of spices and other foods in creating a world cuisine.
A self-taught professional chef, Browne is a wandering bon vivant with a zest for travel, a ready smile, and a yen for the bizarre. Already, he had meandered from Tasmania, through Australia, on to the so-called Spice Islands of Indonesia, and unexpectedly into the deep jungles of Borneo. Ahead was a two-month trek through China before ending up in Pakistan.
Earlier, his Epicurean quest had drawn him to Portugal, North Africa, the Middle East, and India, all of which will figure in anecdote and recipe in his culinary adventure. He's not bothered by suggestions that readers might not be enthusiastic about his recipes for wild boar, snake, or something the Sarawakians call "stomach tea," a soup made from mouse deer.
"The book has grown out of my lust for travel," says Browne, who claims to have attracted serious interest from major publishers. "I literally am trying to sniff out good food, which I have a talent for. I have cooked my way around the world." Jungle cornucopia
During a month of living in Sarawak's jungles and tribal long houses, Browne says he had uncovered a gastronomic cornucopia: wild boar, flying fox (a type of fruit-eating bat), pythons, and mouse deer.
"In the forest, they eat anything that moves," says the deeply tanned cook as he sprawls on a rattan mat on a long-house veranda. "I haven't discovered a great deal of new recipes. What I have discovered is a great deal of new ingredients."
Driving this gastronomic adventurer are gusto, whimsy, and a serendipitous sense that has taken Browne from the ballrooms of Europe to the bazaars of the Middle East to the backwoods of Southeast Asia.
Indeed, he says he really hasn't stopped wandering since he dropped out of school almost two decades ago and "announced that I was walking to India."
Well, he didn't exactly make it, or at least not immediately. He got sidetracked in Morocco for six months and experimented with "great food and great spices. It was a great place to cook."
Largely through a cultivated network of personal contacts - "friends of friends," Browne says - the chef has found himself at various times preparing feasts for artists, movie directors, actors, and other members of the rich and famous in Europe; acting as caretaker for a restored 16th-century farm hamlet in Provence in southern France; helping prepare bread sculptures, cast in bronze, for France's bicentennial.
He also ran a London restaurant where one night a week Japanese women prepared food on stage amid a music-hall atmosphere.
"The people I've met have been the people I've cooked for," says the chef. "I'm thinking of calling my book, `Friend of a Friend.' "
Browne says his book is rooted in one such chance meeting that first brought him to Portugal.
A prominent European banking executive, whom he met at a formal dinner in Paris, invited Browne to prepare a feast at a palace in Portugal.
That visit introduced the chef to the world of spices and set his culinary quest in motion.
"Portuguese influence on food is massive. Portugal has a very underrated food and an incredibly bad reputation," observes Browne.
"Spices just lead to all the other things. In fact, the search for spices has influenced history," he continues. "I decided that I had to explore spices in their indigenous surroundings." New World food in Asia
The logical first stop was Asia, where European powers conquered and colonized in the quest for rare spices. Browne lived with a family in Sulawesi in Indonesia, studying indigenous uses for nutmeg, which is not found anywhere else in the world.
Still, ironically, the world trade in spices and other foodstuffs also enhanced Asian cuisine, Browne says. From the Americas came tomatoes, corn, sweet potatoes, chilies, and peanuts, now staples of Asian cooking.
"The palate was pretty limited over here," the chef says about Asian cuisine. "For example, gado-gado and satay rely heavily on chilies and peanuts."
In Sarawak, where Browne initially went to see pepper plantations and later found himself drawn to forest life in the tribal long houses, the people were often far less creative than he.
In Kejaman Lasah, a vast long house nestled on a riverbank, the chef was befriended by Dixon Nyuleh Lebat and his family. By day, Dixon and Browne hunted boar and other mainstays. By night, Browne cooked and showed the family how to enhance their fare with citrus leaves and lemon grass.
"They don't experiment. Everything is passed down," Browne says. "They smoke cloves in cigarettes; they don't eat them in food."
However, there's a danger of overdoing it. Bucking current Western preferences, Browne is not impressed with Thai food, currently one of Asia's most popular cuisines.
For one thing, Thai food is not original, he says: It borrows heavily from Malaysian and Indian cuisines. Plus, the Thais "ruin" their food with too much spice, Brown contends.
"I've never eaten good Thai food in Thailand. It's better outside," he says. "They create great flavors but then massacre them with chilies."
But then again, he notes, good eating is often in the eye of the beholder. In China, restaurants specialize in dishes prepared for their reputed curative powers. In some parts of Asia, raw monkey brain is "a gastronomic delight," says the chef who has charted a course across the world food map.
"I wander, I have a vague trail to make, but I play it by ear, step by step," he says. "Oftentimes, real knowledge comes by chance, through a friend of a friend."