Filé powder, also called gumbo filé, is a spicy herb made from the dried and ground leaves of the North American sassafras tree (Sassafras albidum).
Several different varieties exist. In New Orleans, what is known as Creole gumbo generally ranges from house to house though still retaining its African and Native American origins. The Creoles of Cane River make a gumbo focused much more on filé. Filé can provide thickening when okra is not in season, in types of gumbo that use okra or a roux as a thickener for gumbo instead of Filé. Sprinkled sparingly over gumbo as a seasoning and a thickening agent, Filé powder adds a distinctive, earthy flavour and texture.
Filé powder is made by harvesting the young leaves and stems of the sassafras plant and grinding them. Filé powder is generally not added until after the vegetables and meats and/or seafood are finished cooking and removed from the heat source.
Choctaw Indians of the American South (Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana) were the first to use dried, ground sassafras leaves as a seasoning. Gumbo may have derived its name from the Choctaw word for filé (kombo). Some culinary experts in the early 20th century, including Celestine Eustis, maintained gumbo including Filé powder was an early special-occasion dish for native tribes. This is further implied by a late 18th-century Creole practice. At that time, rice was a luxury for many Creoles. They served gumbo over corn grits, a pairing common in the stews of native tribes. The use of corn and filé powder may imply the dish was derived from native cuisine.
Substitutes for Filé Powder
- For thickening substitute you can use okra which is typically included in Gumbo recipes
- Cornflour (cornstarch) as a thickener without adding any flavour
- Filé powder is obtainable from some online merchants in Australia