Cooking Louisiana - Filé
What is Filé? Filé is the pulverized leaf of the sassafras tree, you knew that.
have grown wild in South Louisiana for centuries.
Filé (pronounced fee-lay) was here when the first settlers arrived and the French gave it its
name. Filé is supposedly the only true spice that comes from the
The Indians long ago reportedly used
the root for medicinal purposes, and made
the leaves into a powder for thickening and seasoning their food. I
don't know, I wasn't there.
When Louisiana was being settled and spices were scarce the Indians learned
of the value of their filé, and sold it at market in
Making filé is not easy but, as with most spices, fresh filé is
unbeatable. Traditionally here's how it's done.
In August, when the leaves are still
green, the branches are broken and hung in a shed. The branches remain in the dark for about
three weeks to begin drying. When
the leaves are sufficiently dry, they are plucked from the branches and put into a
cotton or burlap sack. The sacks are spread out in the sun each day
to dry the leaves some more, usually for two or more weeks. When the leaves feel
crumbly, they are ready to get their beating.
The beating (the leaves, not the kids) takes place on the first cold day in
October (cooler/drier air). The leaves are put in a mortar and pounded with an
old wooden pestle, the kind that was used to break rice from its
husk. The leaves are beaten until pulverized. Next, they are sifted
with a special sifter. After the first
sifting, the filé goes back to the mortar for another beating, and
then a final sifting. Filé is still made by some of the old timers
today. If you happen upon this treasure, keep it in your freezer to
lengthen the shelf life.
Few Cajun cooks would think of serving a good gumbo without some
Speaking of sassafras...
The essential oil of sassafras (obtained from the root) was,
after removal of safrole, used for flavoring a concoction called root
beer in the USA, which is a truly US-American beverage dating
from the 19.th century.