Imbuing pho broth with whole spices is to be expected but when you want to define as well as reinforce the pho imprint, use this spice blend. I formulated it for The Pho Cookbook to give cooks a tool that could help them make something more “pho-ish”, to help it say, “I am pho-like!”
My initial motivation was to come up with a homemade hoisin sauce recipe on page 102 of the book. What’s bottled and sold as hoisin sauce for pho (tuong an pho) is incredibly sweet and lacking complexity. I wanted my condiment to take a turn toward the pho family of flavors (say that a few times). I analyzed the ratio of spices that I typically use for pho and came up with a formula for the recipe below.
The spice blend worked for hoisin but what’s the use of coming up with a single-use spice blend? That would be a disservice to cooks. So I played around and found that the pho spice blend was great in lamb meatballs (a variation of beef meatballs, bo vien, on page 96). Lamb is strong-tasting meat and the spice blend cut a bit of that and made the lamb pho-friendly.
When my pho fried rice recipe on page 77 of The Pho Cookbook was lacking punch, I boosted its pho signature with the spice blend. The spices worked wonders on the pot sticker fillings on pages 129 and 131, too! For the pho michelada beer cocktail, the pho spice blend reinforced the pho experience at the get-go because the spices are used to rim the glass.
If you’re using the spice blend I recipes from the Pho book, it may seem like you’re using a lot of spice. Keep in mind that the pho spice blend is somewhat fluffy because of the pods and method of grinding. I keep a cheap electric coffee grinder for dealing with spices. The grinder seldom gets spices as fine as what I see in commercially ground spices. But I like the character and flavor of freshly-ground spices.
After each use of the grinder, I grind 1 tablespoon of raw rice to clean out the grinder. I also keep a narrow round natural bristle brush (a small silicon brush may work, too) for cleaning out the grinder (who wants cumin in your black pepper?).
What can you do with the pho spice blend?
- Use it instead of Chinese five-spice powder. You’ll notice that the pho spice blend has some of the same spices as used in many Chinese five-spice blends. Use 20 to 25% more of the pho spice blend because it is not as dense as commercially made Chinese five spice.
- Make a spice rub for grilled or roasted pork or chicken! Simply combine the spice blend with kosher salt in a 1:1 or 2:3 ratio. Why kosher salt? Its mild flavor and coarse texture disperses savoriness more evenly throughout the spices than fine sea salt or table salt.
When selecting the star anise, use fragrant, big points (the petal-shaped seed pods) for the best outcome. Double up if the points are puny looking.
If you use only the star anise, you’ll get sweet-warm results. Adding the Chinese black cardamom lends a smoky, method edge. I love to use a meat mallet/tenderizer to break up the Chinese black cardamom but you can whack it with a heavy saucepan. Because cinnamon sticks do not easily grind up, I use pre-ground cinnamon and add it at the end.
The possible uses for this pho spice blend are limitless. I hope the ideas in the book and this article inspire you. Try out the spend blend recipe (it’s the same as what’s in “Pho Add-Ons” chapter of The Pho Cookbook), and make a double batch if it grows on you.
Pho Spice Blend (Gia Vi Pho)
Yield 1 1/2 tablespoons
- 2 star anise (16 robust points total), or 1 star anise (8 robust points total) and 1 medium Chinese black cardamom
- 2 whole cloves
- 1⁄2 teaspoon fennel seeds
- 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
- 10 black peppercorns
- 1⁄4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- Break up the star anise as needed, dropping the points into a small saucepan, skillet, or wok. If using the black cardamom, use a meat mallet to crush and break the skin, then remove the seeds and add to the star anise; discard the skin since it won’t grind up easily.
- Add the cloves, fennel seeds, coriander seeds, and peppercorns. Toast over medium heat, stirring, for about 3 minutes, until fragrant and slightly darkened. Cool off heat and then grind to a fine texture in a clean spice grinder (a dedicated electric coffee grinder works great); if you like, hold on tight and shake the grinder to get all of the ingredients into contact with the blades. Add the cinnamon and pulse a few times to combine.
- Transfer to a jar and keep in the cupboard for up to 1 month. Grind a tablespoon of raw rice to clean out the grinder.
From Andrea Nguyen's The Pho Cookbook (Ten Speed Press, 2017)