Ever hear of Gumbo? If you’ve not been to Louisiana, maybe you’ve never tried it or even heard of it. Gumbo is an African word for ‘okra’, which is a green vegetable that is mainly raised and consumed in the Southeastern U.S.
Personally, I’m not very fond of okra. Ok, I can’t stand that slimy stuff, and that’s always been my experience with okra, unless it’s been in a “gumbo”, or thick soup. Okra thickens the gumbo which also has some type of meat, chicken and sausage usually, in a seafood broth made from cooked shrimp heads or shells, and a few veggies, like tomatoes, peppers, celery, onions and garlic.
It turns out that Creole folk adopted a custom from the Native American Choctaw tribes, who added crushed sassafras leaves to soups as a flavoring and thickening agent. Today, the spice from ground sassafras leaves is called Filé, pronounced fee-lay. When Filé powder or filé spice is used in gumbo-style soup, it may be called Filé Gumbo.
I think we must have used a Yankee version of filé this summer when we made ketchup. We hung sassafras leaves along with some pickling spice in a cheesecloth bag in the pot as we cooked down tomatoes, peppers and onions into ketchup – which is another story, Making Homemade Ketchup.
Filé spice consists of crushed, dried Sassafras leaves. It’s not hard to make it at home, provided that you can find some Sassafras. Go to any state forest in the Eastern U.S. and ask a ranger where you can see some Sassafras trees. Chances are great that you’ll find Sassafras at the edge of the woods. Sassafras leaves are unmistakable, so never fear!
If you’re not into going into the woods or if you have no desire to make your own filé, of course you can order Gumbo Filé online.
Harvest the young, green leaves on the August full moon for the best flavor. Seeing that it’s October as I’m writing this and the fall colors are well upon us, it’s not a good time to harvest Sassafras leaves for making Filé spice. I don’t think I’ll find too many green leaves, and certainly not young leaves, but I’ll give it a try and report back later on how it goes.
Once you harvest the Sassafras leaves, they are to be dried out of the sun for at least a week. Longer is fine. Once the leaves are harvested the making of the filé can happen at a much later time.
Crush the leaves with your hands and remove all the bits of stems. Grind leaves into powder using a coffee grinder or a spice mill or get busy crushing with a mortar and pestle. The crushed dried sassafras leaves should be a green color, not brown as you will find in some stores.
If you are going to buy filé in a store, check the label first. Some other spices or ground dried herbs are passed off as filé, hence a light brown color.
Store the powdered filé in an air-tight container. A spice jar works great so it can be passed around the table and sprinkled on soup to each one’s taste.
Can’t add filé during cooking because it makes the soup stringy and that’s downright undesirable. When soup is taken off the heat you can add filé or offer it in a shaker bottle at the table so that way everyone can add as much as they like. Just don’t add filé to the pot if the pot is going to be re-heated on the second day!
Gotta go check for some green Sassafras leaves!