Spotlight Spice: Gumbo Filé Powder

Mardi Gras is right around the corner, so we’re pulling our gumbo pot out of storage and grabbing the Gumbo Filé Powder off the top shelf of the spice rack as we prepare for some delicious, Louisiana cooking.

Gumbo Filé Powder (sometimes just called filé) is a spice made from crushing dried sassafras leaves. Sassafras sound familiar? The roots and bark were the original base for root beer!

The powdered leaves of the sassafras tree were first used in cooking by the Choctaw Indians in the Southeastern United States. As Cajuns arrived in Southern Louisiana, they adopted the practice and began using filé powder as a thickening agent in their soups and gumbos.

Modern gumbo dishes use a roux (butter and flour) as the thickener in place of gumbo filé powder, saving the filé to flavor each bowl just as it’s served. Why? The word filé comes from the French word filer, which means to spin (like spinning threads). And why on earth would they call it that? Turns out, when gumbo filé powder is added to a cooking pot of gumbo, it can become stringy, adding an unpleasant texture to the dish.

Why use it at all, then? Gumbo filé powder adds an authentic, earthy flavor to gumbo – many southern Louisianans won’t eat their gumbo without it. Avoid the stringiness by adding the filé powder to each bowl as it is served. We recommend adding about a half teaspoon per bowl for that authentic, Cajun flavor.