Pho is becoming popular every day. As a Vietnamese I love it and am very proud at the same time.

For this reason, when someone makes an assertion about pho that's not quite true or correct, I welcome the opportunity to help rectify, share, and educate in hope to keep pho's integrity and authenticity at least somewhat intact.

Here's an example. Reader Arun wrote in the conversation about What Is Real, Authentic Pho? :

I would say in order to be called pho it should have cinnamon, coriander, fennel, cloves, and or star anise. Anything else without that is hu tieu.

Spices used on making pho broth: star anise, cinnamon sticks, coriander seeds, cardamom, cloves

Spices used on making pho broth: star anise, cinnamon sticks, coriander seeds, cardamom, cloves

It's not clear about Arun's use of the conjunctions "and" and "or" and what he/she actually means by this statement. There actually are 2 different issues in these sentences, one is whether pho must have ALL the spices mentioned, and two is the mentioning of hu tieu. Here's my answer to Arun's interesting post.

@Arun: Thanks for leaving your opinion. Here’s the reality that many non-Vietnamese (and even some new generation Vietnamese) do not realize and/or understand. It’s not that cut and dry to attempt to define pho in such a narrow definition, and it’s not fair for pho to be put inside such a sharp and narrow boundary.

In order to understand food in general and pho in particular, there is a better perspective to consider. Here’s what I’m talking about.

I can go to In-N-Out Burgers and order a burger. Or I can go to Five Guys and order a burger. Or I can also go to a local high-end joint and enjoy a gourmet burger. Or I can go to a popular bar across the street and enjoy a burger. I think it’s safe to say that no one would debate whether each place serves burger or not, or whether they mean it’s beef burger they serve. Of course there are some exceptions but I think you get my point.

When my family and many others arrived in the U.S. in the late 1970s, we made pho at home that didn’t really have all necessary ingredients. But I can assure you that what we made using only what we could find in the U.S. at that time was 100% pho. This is because we knew what pho was supposed to be and with the limited ingredients that were available, we chose only the right ingredients so we could make pho from them. So it’s a lot more than just following a list of ingredients with a narrow definition. It’s more about how you understand the food itself.

Hu tieu is another story entirely and has completely different flavor profile. The only common ingredients are the banh pho noodle and maybe green onions and cilantro for garnishing. You can’t just change a few spices in pho, or not use them at all (as you seem to imply) and get hu tieu out of it. I don’t think it works that way.

For those wanting to know more about hu tieu, check out this post called Hu Tieu or Hủ Tiếu - Paying Respect to Pho’s Cousin.

I have made pho with only 2 or 3 of the spices mentioned, and I know of many people who have as well. With some adjustment made to the recipe, one can create great tasting pho, and no one will know what's missing.  Depending on how you do it, most people can get by using just star anises, cinnamon sticks, and maybe one or 2 of the remaining spices.

So have you made great pho with less than the 5 spices? Share in the comments below.


  1. Sue Murray 27 October, 2023 at 18:20 Reply

    I’m 70 and I’ve just discovered the wonderful world of Pho! I’d love to try making it myself. What spices do I need; how do I prepare them to use and how much of each spice to put in the cheesecloth bundle? I’d love to start with 8-10 servings. What bones should I use. I like chicken and beef best. A seafood Pho sounds good too! Where can I get all the above info? Help! Thanks!

    • Cuong Huynh 28 October, 2023 at 12:01 Reply

      Hi Sue: Thanks for your comment. Your many questions can be answered by using a single good pho recipe, then modify to your liking. While there are many pho recipes to be found online these days, for a starting point you may find lovingpho’s own beef recipe helpful
      Or search for pho recipes by Andrea Nguyen which are reliable. As a quick note, before circa 1980-85, Vietnamese pho has been mainly either with beef or chicken. These days, seafood or other varieties are mainly creations by restauranteurs trying to capture a larger customer base, and as such there is really no one way to do it. Generally these varieties are based on 1) the owner’s own preferences, 2) what are already available in the kitchen, or 3) just imitating another restaurant’s recipe. The key thing is, once you understand the basics of pho, you can substitute pretty much anything to make your own pho including seafood pho. Best of luck. I hope you find your pho.

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