Searching for the World's Finest Ginger
Chef Eric Ripert and the men behind Domaine de Canton travel to Vietnam to find the elusive herb and discover a new world of culinary delights.
I ’m standing on the side of a mountain in Hoa Binh province in northwest Vietnam, my sneakers coated in mud. It’s a rainy, bitter-cold March afternoon. My travel companions are Eric Ripert, the Michelin three-star Manhattan chef behind the incredible West 51st Street restaurant Le Bernardin, Domaine de Canton creator John Cooper and his master blender, Jean François Bardou. All four of us have, it seems, allowed excitement and passion to get in the way of common sense. We’ve come to Vietnam for ginger, to see where the aromatic, spicy herb is grown. Even though the country’s production of it is tiny compared with the industry’s leaders (India and China have more than 50 percent of the market), many say it’s among the finest. We pictured flat rice paddies lined instead with rows of ginger plants. Were we crazy or what?
Two days earlier, I had been in the lovingly restored mahogany lobby of the French colonial–style Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi Hotel, in the heart of Hanoi, getting to know these guys. Let me back up for a moment: For the last two years, I’ve been working on mastering the perfect ginger cookie, which is why I was asked to become a ginger hunter by Eric and John. I’d never met Eric, though I had dined on his ravishing seafood—scallop slivers in lemon-rosemary vinaigrette; poached halibut with braised artichoke and water chestnuts—many times during his 17 years at the helm. John and I had only been introduced in December. For John, no stranger to the spirits industry (his father created Chambord), this was to be a personal journey. Together, he and Jean François had found the perfect blend of ginger, Cognac, honey, vanilla and ginseng to bring Domaine de Canton to life. He’s been importing Vietnamese baby ginger since 2008 and finally wanted to see the real thing.
Eric and John, meanwhile, had become fast friends in 2007, after John sent Eric a bottle of Domaine for its launch; Eric liked the liqueur so much, he asked for a meeting. Today the recipe booklet that accompanies each bottle contains specially created dishes by Eric and drinks by John. Together, these two dreamed up this seven-day trip, first and foremost to source John’s ginger but also to experience this dynamic country and the French and Chinese influences that infuse everything from its food and architecture to its culture and people. We would begin and end in Hanoi, and after the ginger hunt there would be visits to the southern port of Hoi An, which glowed with exquisite silk and paper lanterns in celebration of the full moon; and Hue, to see the historic Thien Mu Pagoda temple with the rusted car of Thich Quang Duc, the Buddhist monk who set himself aflame in protest of South Vietnam’s Diem regime.
In Hanoi, our focus is food. Leaving the Metropole, our merry band of ginger trekkers sets out for our first meal together. We head to Cha Ca Thang Long, in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, to try the restaurant’s famous cha ca, or grilled fish. We quickly realize we’ll be preparing the fragrant dish ourselves. But who cares when you have a renowned chef with you? Eric gracefully combines all the ingredients—onions, dill, crushed peanuts, mint, rice noodles and chunks of char-grilled fish—in a skillet with fish sauce and cooks with a smile. I do the same from the other end of the table—not as gracefully, but I get the job done, and it tastes heavenly.
The next morning Tracey Lister, who co-runs the Hanoi Cooking Centre (close to 3,500 people from around the world take her classes each year), leads us on her first-rate culinary walking tour. She first takes us to Pho Huyen, a noodle shop in the city’s French Quarter. The piping-hot bowls of pho bo (beef) and pho ga (chicken) are topped with slices of lime and chiles. The flavors are divine.
We wander into the nearby Cho Chau Long market, a tented wonderland of meats, fish, fruits and vegetables. Everything has been butchered or pulled from the earth only hours earlier. The guys are on the lookout for ginger, and we spot some stacked high in red buckets. It’s mature ginger root (harvested by hand after seven months); John buys the harder-to-find baby ginger (pulled from the ground after just four months). Sourcing from Vietnam, John says, started as an inspiration for the liqueur, which was created during colonial Indochina, but ended up being based on flavor. Chinese, Australian, Jamaican ginger, all of which he’d tasted, just didn’t cut it. Vietnamese baby ginger imparts a good spice that’s not overpowering. It’s also a little sweeter, with nice aromatic elements.