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I have been cooking pho for a while. Pho recipes differ from one another, but one of the most common spice ingredients is cardamom. Having looked at various sources, recipes, and Wiki pages, I feel more confused than ever. Some insist that green cardamom should be used in pho, which is also what I myself have been using to cook pho. For example this recipe apparently uses green cardamom.

However, a whole lot of pages point to black cardamom. The problem is that it seems what is known as "black cardamom" is not monolithic but an umbrella term for two similar spices. According to its Wikipedia page:

At least two distinct species of black cardamom occur: Amomum subulatum (also known as Nepal cardamom) and Amomum tsao-ko. The pods of A. subulatum, used primarily in the cuisines of India and certain regional cuisines of Pakistan, are the smaller of the two, while the larger pods of A. tsao-ko (Chinese: wiktionary:草果; pinyin: cǎoguǒ; Vietnamese: thảo quả) are used in Chinese cuisine, particularly that of Sichuan, and Vietnamese cuisine.

In another section of the same page:

The pods are often used in Vietnam, where they are called thảo quả and used as an ingredient in the broth for the noodle soup called phở.

So I gather from this page that it should be tsao ko that goes in pho.

But I still have doubts. I happen to have tsao ko, a lot of it, and it is something I use quite frequently in other Asian dishes. It looks similar to the black cardamom in a lot of pictures on recipe sites, but not quite the same. Examined closely enough, tsao ko is round, fleshy, plump, and looks like this:

enter image description here

In contrast, the black cardamom shown in pho recipe photos and most commonly available is leaner, pointier:

enter image description here

I think it is very obvious they are different things and the latter is apparently the other black cardamom, Amomum subulatum. A pho recipe site links to this Amazon page. It seems what is sold as "black cardamom" is most likely Amomum subulatum.

So here are my questions: What is pho in Vietnam cooked with? Is it a divided matter, a matter of preference? Is green cardamom used at all? If black cardamom is the way to go, which black cardamom?

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    Use what you like or don't use it at all. There is no official recipe for pho. – user50726 May 13 '19 at 17:44
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In phở soup, we use thảo quả, or Lanxangia tsao-ko, formerly known as Amomum tsaoko. Thảo quả trees are grown in Northern Vietnam, Laos, and in Yunnam China (known as 草果).

We call Black cardamom (Amomum subulatum) as đậu khấu thơm. Black cardamom trees are grown in India, Nepal, Burma, Tibet, Yunnam. Black cardamom trees are not native to Vietnam, and their pods are not used in phở traditonally.

We call green cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) as bạch đậu khấu. Like black cardamom, it's not used in phở, either.

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  • Thank you so much for this answer! To make sure I understand you correctly: thảo quả is not black cardamom, right? Can you further explain their difference? At my local Vietnamese and Indian stores, amomum tsaoko is sold as "black cardamom". I am still not quite clear how they are different. – Eddie Kal Jan 24 at 20:27
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    I would say, botanically they are different species. The idea of putting thảo quả" into *phở broth is to make it more aromatic. Black cardamomum can be a close substitute. In fact, đậu khấu thơm means aromatic cardamomum. I'm not surprised that some Vietnamese ingredients are (mis)translated into English like that. If you buy that in an Indian store, it's likely that it's black cardamomum. I believe you may buy thảo quả (Chinese: 草果) in a Chinese store instead. baike.baidu.com/item/%E8%8D%89%E6%9E%9C/2863688 – Dokkan7 Jan 25 at 1:20
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    The upper image with brown color might be the right thảo quả. The lower image with gray and black color is not. The Amazon product is not thảo quả. – Dokkan7 Jan 25 at 2:19
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I think you have actually answered your own question:

Some insist that green cardamom should be used in pho, which is also what I myself have been using to cook pho.

And later:

However, a whole lot of pages point to black cardamom.

Not being an expert on Asian cooking (far from it) you may have run across regional differences, or personal preferences. I would be tempted to say, use what you like the best. Or use what goes best with what you are serving with the Pho.

A recipe is not a hard and fast rule on how something must be cooked, rather a list of guidelines around which you can improvise to suit yourself, your family or the meal itself.

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