Pho (pronounced as ‘fuh’, not ‘foe’) is arguably one of the most popular Vietnamese dishes. Its symphony of flavors has set a standard among other kinds of noodle soup, leaving no room for blandness. So what spices are found in pho soup? Pho soup consists of five main spices:
- Star Anise
- Whole Cloves
- Cinnamon Sticks
- Coriander Seeds
- Cardamom Pods
These are the mythical five that are needed when creating that authentic pho soup that you would find in Vietnam.
To learn more about the spices and ingredients you’ll need when making pho soup, then keep on reading to access all of the necessary information about it below!
What Spices are in Pho Soup?
Since pho originated from Vietnam, a country located in Southeast Asia with a rich history, you can learn a lot about their culture based on their traditional dishes alone. Pho is a type of noodle soup that contains a unique melody of spices that bring out a very distinct flavor.
So let’s take a closer look at the five key spices one must have when recreating the classic pho soup–star anise, whole cloves, cinnamon sticks, coriander seeds, and cardamom pods.
Star Anise is a spice that’s popular in the majority of Asian dishes. It has a very distinct taste and an aromatic smell that alters the flavor of a dish in a good way. Its flavor is described to be very warm, sweet, and spicy. Since this spice is potent, it is typically used in small quantities in order to not overpower the dish with its strong flavor.
This particular spice has vitamins A and C and contains rich antioxidants such as:
- Anethole – This compound is classified as a terpene which is 13 times sweeter than sugar and makes up 90% of star anise’s essential oil.
- Caryophyllene – This is another terpene found in star anise that is a potent antioxidant that contains anti-inflammatory properties.
- Linalool – Linalool is a terpene found in star anise that is also used in essential oils. This substance is also a natural antioxidant and has anti-inflammatory properties which are said to improve the mood and calm the body.
- Estragole – Estragole is a terpene that is also an anti-inflammatory compound.
- Limonene – Limonene contains antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties that help boost immunity, eradicate pathogens, decrease anxiety and stress. It is also said to be an anti-cancer agent.
In order to capture that authentic pho broth taste, whole cloves are a necessary ingredient to add to the mix. Now, this spice packs a punch with its pungent aroma and has a unique flavor that’s a mixture of sweetness and bitterness.
Besides being used for cooking, whole cloves contain medicinal properties that can help improve digestion, control diabetes, protect the liver, and improve the immune system.
When building the base broth of the pho, it’s important to use cinnamon in its stick form, since this spice is incredibly potent and complements the cardamom that’s also used to add flavor to the soup. The taste of cinnamon is described as mildly sweet with undertones of a bitter flavor and a warm spiciness.
Cinnamon is known to have many health benefits such as having anti-inflammatory properties and may decrease the risk of getting heart disease. It’s loaded with antioxidants and can lower blood sugar levels.
Coriander seeds are notable for its citrusy notes, which is why adding this spice to the broth helps tone down the spiciness of the other ingredients. It acts as a balancer while providing a mild zingy taste to the pho.
Just like the other spices mentioned, coriander itself is packed with antioxidants and health benefits. These can be found in coriander seeds as well. For instance, coriander seeds are loaded with vitamin K which helps in bone repair and development. Coriander seeds are also helpful in reducing inflammation and improving digestion.
Ginger is a common herb in Southeast Asia, so adding this in pho soup just makes sense. The ginger can be coarsely sliced or sliced in half to deposit more flavor in the soup but also to the other toppings included. It is described to have a slightly peppery and sweet taste which complements the other intense flavors in this soup.
They say that cardamom pods are what’s responsible for giving that signature pho flavor. With its strong, distinct minty taste, it adds a menthol twist to the soup base which helps balance out the other flavorful spices. Cardamom typically comes in green and black, however, green cardamom is milder and used more often compared to the black ones.
In early dates, cardamom was used in making traditional medicine so it’s no surprise that it is filled with tons of health benefits. Cardamom is said to have antimicrobial properties and may help improve liver, heart, respiratory, and digestive health. It may also help regulate blood sugar levels.
Other Ingredients Needed to Make Pho Soup
Now that all the essential spices needed for the broth are listed, it’s time to mention the other vital ingredients when making pho soup. After all, pho is more than just its soup–there are many more elements that make pho extremely tasty and delicious.
Here are the other ingredients you need to incorporate into your pho shop:
Flat Rice Noodles
Asian dishes are known for incorporating noodles into their soup–pho is no exception to that unwritten rule. It’s important to use flat rice noodles when making pho soup and not any other kind of noodle. Rice noodles are not only delicious but also are gluten-free.
Beef or any kind of meat is typically found in traditional pho soup. The beef should be thinly sliced and is added last because so then it’s cooked just right and evenly. If you don’t eat beef then you can substitute it for a different type of meat or if you don’t consume any kind of meat then making pho vegan is not impossible and much easier than you think!
Onion and Garlic
These two ingredients go hand and hand and are an absolute no-brainer, if you don’t normally add these when cooking then what are you thinking? Onion and garlic are added to obviously add more flavor to the noodle soup. Baking the onion and garlic enables a much sweeter and milder taste that goes perfectly well with the other ingredients.
Pho is an established tasty noodle soup, but in order to make it more visually appealing, the Vietnamese culinary gods decided to decorate it with some garnishing. Thai basil (not the regular kind) is one of those ingredients to make pho look prettier. But, Thai basil is more than just its looks, it also provides its own kind of powerful flavoring which is why only a few are needed as garnish.
Although it’s optional, bean sprouts are added for a diversity of taste and for that crunch factor (some don’t like the crunchy texture which is why it’s sometimes left out). It has a slightly earthy and nutty flavor that has high water content.
Fish sauce is common in Asia, a considerable amount is added to the broth base of any dish which provides a salty, umami taste. The complex flavor it brings is due to the fermented fish used to make the sauce.
How to Classify Authentic Pho?
So what makes pho authentic, and how do we distinguish it from other pho soups that have been adjusted to other countries’ taste preferences? The answer lies within the broth. Authentic pho soup contains meat bones (typically from beef) and is soaked and simmered into the broth to add a complex base flavor. Adding bones into the broth creates a much more intense and dynamic taste which other restaurants may skip out on because of how time-consuming it actually is.
Is Pho Vegan Friendly?
In a traditional sense, pho contains meat. So, when you eat at an authentic Vietnamese restaurant, it may be difficult to find pho that doesn’t contain meat or any animal by-product. But, it’s very easy to adjust this delicious noodle soup to be enjoyed by vegans and other people following a plant-based diet!
You can omit the meat and replace it with mushrooms, tofu, or use vegan meat alternatives instead!
As for the base of the broth, more often than not, traditional pho contains fish sauce which is obviously not suited for vegans and vegetarians. Fish sauce is made up of fermented anchovies and other variations of fish, but there are alternatives you can use that won’t mess up your diet! Firstly, there is actually a vegan version of fish sauce, the availability of it may depend on where you’re located but rest assured it exists.
Another alternative you can try is regular soy sauce or tamari (which is another variation of soy sauce), it has a different taste compared to the fish sauce but can bring out a similar flavor.
Once and Pho All…
If you bring up Vietnamese cuisine, more often than not it’s pho that’s often mentioned. The tasty noodle soup has been a fan favorite in many parts of the world and with good reason–the complexity of the flavors embedded in the broth gives the stomach a warm, friendly hug. It’s happiness in a bowl.
The next time you’re craving soup, try to make a batch of pho and you definitely won’t regret it!