The Most Necessary Pho Spices List

Pho is one of the dishes with the most distinctive aroma in Vietnamese cuisine. That aroma comes from various pho spices; however, there are quite a few, especially if you are a beginner in cooking, or only cook it several times a year. To make it easier, here is a list of the most necessary pho spices that I have concluded after 3 years of cooking pho at home.

The Must-Have Pho Spices

The must-have list of Pho Spices includes Star Anise, Cinnamon, and Coriander seeds. The aroma from these three types of spices plays a crucial role in creating the distinctive scent of pho.

pho spices

Star Anise (Vietnamese: Hoa hồi)

This is a spice that comes from the fruit of the Chinese evergreen tree, scientifically known as Illicium verum. It is native to China and Vietnam but is also grown in other parts of Asia. Star anise gets its name from its star-shaped appearance, which is due to the pod-like fruit containing seeds.

Each star-shaped ‘pod’ typically contains between six to eight seeds, which are small, brown, and aromatic. It has a sweet, licorice-like taste with warm, spicy, and slightly bitter undertones. In fact, star anise doesn’t contribute much to the flavor of the broth. However, it’s a must-have pho spice because the aroma of pho significantly comes from it.

When buying star anises, you should choose intact ones, each star anise having 6-8 petals, without being broken. Pay attention to observe signs of mold on them, as well as check the expiration date on the packaging.

Star anise

Cinnamon (Vietnamese: Quế)

Unlike star anise, cinnamon is a widely used spice globally. Cinnamon has a warm, sweet, and mildly spicy flavor, making it a common ingredient in many dishes worldwide. In pho, cinnamon is also one of the essential spices because of the distinctive aroma it contributes along with other pho spices.

Cinnamon is a spice obtained from the inner bark of several tree species from the genus Cinnamomum. It is native to Sri Lanka (Ceylon cinnamon) and is also cultivated in other regions including Indonesia, China, Vietnam, and India.

Note that there are two most common types of cinnamon, Ceylon and Cassia. Ceylon cinnamon is lighter in color and has a finer texture compared to Cassia cinnamon. Cassia cinnamon, also known as Chinese cinnamon, has a stronger, more intense flavor with a slightly bitter undertone compared to Ceylon cinnamon. The type of cinnamon typically used in pho is Cassia cinnamon, as it is native to Vietnam. In my opinion, both types work well with pho; however, since Cassia cinnamon is cheaper and has a stronger aroma, there is no reason for us to opt for another type of cinnamon.

Cinnamon ceylon and cinnamon cassia used in Chinese five spice
Left: Cassia cinnamon (Chinese cinnamon) – Right: Ceylon cinnamon

Coriander seeds (Vietnamese: Hạt mùi già)

What sets Pho spices apart from five-spice powder is the absence of coriander seeds. Coriander seeds are the dried seeds of the coriander plant, a familiar herb in our kitchen. The fresh leaves of the coriander plant, known as cilantro, are widely used in cooking. In fact, coriander seeds can be used to grow coriander plants and obtain fresh leaves for culinary use.

Coriander seeds have a similar aroma to the leaves but are much stronger. They impart a warm, citrusy, and slightly sweet flavor, making them an essential spice for Pho.

In summary, star anise, cinnamon, and coriander seeds are the three most necessary Pho spices. They are readily available in Asian stores or supermarkets. If you can’t find a pre-packaged Pho spices kit, purchasing these three separately is both cheaper and more versatile.

pho spices coriander seeds

Additional Pho Spices

Fennel Seeds (Vietnamese: Hạt thì là)

They are the dried seeds of the fennel plant, also called dill. The fennel plant is a flowering herb native to the Mediterranean region, but it is now cultivated and used worldwide for culinary and medicinal purposes. Fennel seeds have a sweet, licorice-like flavor with hints of both herbal and slightly spicy notes.

In Vietnamese cuisine, fresh dill is widely used in cooking, such as in Vietnamese Clam Soup. With fennel seeds, you can sow them like coriander seeds or use them as a spice. In Pho, if possible, fennel seeds are added to the spice package.

pho spices fennel seeds

Clove (Vietnamese: Đinh hương)

Cloves are aromatic flower buds derived from the Syzygium aromaticum tree, which is native to the Maluku Islands (historically known as the Spice Islands) in Indonesia. These flower buds are harvested when they are still closed and then dried until they turn brown. They have a strong, sweet, and slightly spicy flavor, along with a warm aroma.

In my opinion, cloves are a good addition to pho. Their strong, distinct aroma will enhance the fragrance of your pho broth, making it more impressive.

Zoom in cloves in five spice powder

Black Cardamom (Vietnamese: Thảo quả)

Black cardamom, also known as “hill cardamom”, “greater cardamom”, or “brown cardamom”, is a spice native to the eastern Himalayas and neighboring regions of Southeast Asia. It belongs to the ginger family and offers a robust, smoky, and earthy taste. The smokiness of black cardamom comes from the traditional drying process, which often involves smoking the pods over open flames. This imparts a unique aroma and flavor to the spice. If you are interested in a strong, intense aroma in your Pho, consider adding black cardamom to the broth.

The background of black cardamom; Shutterstock ID 1503815297; other: -; purchase_order: -; client: -; job: –

How to infuse spices to Pho broth

Regarding the amount of spices, depends on your preference, you can adjust it. Usually, per 2.5L (10 cups) Pho broth, use:

  • 3 or 4 star anise pods
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1 tbsp coriander seeds
  • 1/2 tsp fennel seeds (optional)
  • 4 cloves (optional)
  • 1 black cardamom (optional)

Before adding spices into the broth, it’s recommended to roast or char the star anise pods, coriander seeds, cinnamon, and other spices until they have a slight blackened exterior. This step imparts aromatic depth to the broth. You can do so by roasting them in a pan or ideally grill them on an open flame.

Then, use fabric tea filter, stainless steel tea infuser or even a piece of cheesecloth to keep all the spices, or just the small spices like coriander seeds, fennel seeds or cloves together. This is to help keeping the broth cleaner and easily removing the spices from the broth.

How long to leave spices in Pho

I used to make a mistake: I left my spice bag in the broth for too long, and as a result, my broth turned bitter due to the overpowering flavor of the spices. Therefore, it’s best to add the spices during the last stage of simmering the broth, around 20-40 minutes before turning off the heat. This allows enough time for the aroma to infuse into the broth without overwhelming it.

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