Without doubt, spices play a major role in defining pho. They contribute lots of aroma and flavor to create a multi-dimensional broth. They are subtly there to help express that something is pho-ish. Typical pho spices are warm and sweet, but each has its individual personality.
If this sounds odd, consider the spices that go into chili beans. Now consider the characteristics of Chinese-five spice. The first pho cooks were Chinese-Vietnamese and China borders Vietnam’s northern reaches. You can smell and taste the influence of the Middle Kingdom. (Note: The above image by John Lee is in the Pho book and includes Chinese yellow rock sugar, which is not a spice but a seasoning ingredient.)
Foundational Pho Spices
When you’re leafing through and/or cooking through The Pho Cookbook, you’ll note recurring appearances of certain spices. Pho is not just about star anise, but rather a dance of spices. Here’s a breakdown of what I use and why: