In our monthly column, One Curious Ingredient, Michelle Peters-Jones explores the history and culinary use of ingredients or dishes that are unfamiliar to her — and probably many of us! We also invite you to share your own stories and recipe links in the comments. Today, Michelle explores filé powder. We bet you’re curious to learn more about it!
Even though I was limited in my palate while growing up, I dare say I've made up for it by now. I satisfied a lot of my wanderlust in my late teens and my twenties, and when, once we moved to Canada, we were forced by financial and family commitments to stay in one place, rather than travel all over, I never really felt like I was missing out on much. There is, however, one place that is still in my heart, a place I want to visit so badly, and hopefully I will give in to that pretty soon.
That place, for me, is New Orleans. I don’t know why New Orleans exerts such an influence on me. I suspect it's my addiction to voodoo, supernatural and fantasy books, quite a few of which are set there, taking full advantage of the city’s mystery. By extension, this also led me to a fascination with Cajun, Creole and Acadian food and culture, and the way in which they've influenced Southern American cuisine. And while Cajun and Creole are used interchangeably, the difference between them comes down to place — Cajun food originates from the Louisiana bayou and is considered down-home cooking with some French influence, while Creole is French-, African- and European-influenced.
One of the best-known Cajun dishes is gumbo, a thick meat, seafood or vegetable stew made with a dark roux, which brings me to our curious ingredient of the month, filé powder, a unique spice in Creole cooking used as a flavouring and a thickening agent. Filé (pronounced as FEE-lay) powder is made from the dried and ground leaves of the sassafras tree — the tree most famously known as the primary ingredient in traditional root beer. Young leaves and stems of the sassafras tree are harvested and dried, and then powdered to make the spice.
Traditional filé powder is usually a deep olive green or khaki colour, and has a distinctive cooling eucalyptus and "root beer" fragrance and flavour to it. Ground sassafras leaves were first thought to have been used by the native tribes of Louisiana, primarily the Choctaw Indians. Food historians believe that filé was used to add flavour to these soups and stews during special occasions.
Today filé is used mainly in adding an authentic layer of flavour to gumbos and seafood stews in Cajun cooking. Along with its use in gumbo, filé is also used in some versions of jambalayas. Traditionally filé gumbo was served over corn grits, but today it's served with Louisiana rice. Filé powder is always added at the end of the cooking process for both gumbos and jambalayas. Along with its unusual flavour, it's also primarily used as a thickening agent for these stews.
Unfortunately, filé is not always available, as it depends on the harvesting of sassafras leaves and stems. The most common substitutes for this spice are okra — which adds thickness — and cornstarch. Note that okra and filé powder should never be used together in the same dish. These substitutes do not, however, always have the unusual "juicy fruit" flavour of filé so it's worth seeking out this spice when you get a chance. Filé powder, like every other spice, is best stored in a cool, dark place in an airtight container and used within six months of opening.
Here are a few online stores where you can buy your filé powder. You can also ask your local Creole restaurants where they source their filé from. If you happen to have a sassfras tree growing in your backyard, then the best time to harvest tender leaves and stems is in spring. Dry them outdoors or in a dehydrator and powder finely.
Here are a couple of my favourite filé gumbo and jambalaya recipes. Don’t forget to sing along as you make them. Please post your own recipe links featuring filé powder in the comments below!