Cooking Louisiana  -  Filé
What is Filé? Filé is the pulverized leaf of the sassafras tree, you knew that. Sassafras trees 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 United States!

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 New Orleans.

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 leaf beating 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 fresh filé.

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 19th century.

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