Poutine is Canada’s unofficial national dish (in my mind, ketchup chips are a close second), and on paper, it’s a straightforward concoction: french fries, brown gravy, and cheese curds are what it takes to make something that qualifies as poutine. But it takes something special to get it right and make it great.
The dish hails from Quebec, and its origins are a little murky, which seems to be the story with all of the best food. Canadian women’s publication Chatelaine has a great piece diving into its history, explaining that poutine originated in a small town called Warwick, located in Arthabaska County. The story begins with fresh cheese curds, a specialty of local dairy farmers. At the request of a customer, restaurant owner Fernand Lachance added a handful of curds to an order of fries one day, and the dish quickly became a hit. But diners at Le Lutin Qui Rit said that the fries grew cold too quickly, so Lachance ladled on a thick blanket of gravy to keep them hot, and that’s how poutine was born. Or that’s how the story goes.
Whether they believe that version of events or not, what do Canadians really think about the pile of fried potatoes, gravy, and cheese that has become an emblem of their nation’s cuisine? And what details can make or break a plate of poutine?
“The big big thing people in Canada like to get real up in arms about, and shit on American attempts at poutine, is that it has to have real cheese curds,” says Tania, who lives in Vancouver. “That’s like, absolutely essential.”
If you’d have asked me what makes poutine poutine, I’d probably have said it was the gravy, whereas the form of cheese was negotiable. It turns out I had it all wrong: Curds define the dish, utterly and completely.
“In the United States and Canada you can definitely get shitty poutine, but only America has the audacity to melt mozzarella on it,” Tania says. “The curds are crucial, and they have to be fresh so that they squeak when you eat them.”
Dave Kaufman, a Montreal-based freelance journalist and broadcaster, agrees that the right cheese is what defines a good poutine.
“The one thing would be a replacement cheese,” he said when asked about his poutine dealbreakers. “To me that negates the poutine right off the hop. You’re no longer a poutine. There’s a famous place in Montreal behind the Montreal Forum [a former hockey arena] that used to do that. And I’m sure they called it a poutine on the menu.”
“It was fries, cheese, sauce—but that was not a poutine,” Kaufman continued. “It’s not what I view as a poutine. It was weird, because it was this really famous, beloved place. That was the one thing that they didn’t do the way one would expect.”
“My definition of a poutine is definitely a brown sauce with cheese curds, with a non-mushy French fry,” said Kaufman. “When it’s done perfectly, when you get the balance just right, it’s a dish of perfection.”
Depending on your preferences, Kaufman says that additional toppings are acceptable. Famous Montreal poutine spot La Banquise, for example, has dozens of different variations, including chicken, smoked meats, guacamole, and more. When it comes down to it, however, he remains a traditionalist.
“The only other one I’ve tried that I think [works] is bacon,” he said.
So as long as the inclusion of cheese curds isn’t messed with, it sounds like a wide range of interpretations are fair game. Tania points to the menu of Vancouver poutine restaurant La Belle Patate as an example of what sorts of things Canadians like to do with the dish.
“One of the menu items is literally called ‘hot dog,’” Tania said. “That is, in fact, poutine with cut-up pieces of hot dog in it.”
Canadians would probably laugh at the question of where to find poutine, because it can be found virtually everywhere. It’s ubiquitous. In fact, it’s such a part of the culinary landscape that even McDonald’s sells it. And everyone has their favorite place to get it.
Kaufman swears his pick is worth traveling to. “There’s a place that I go called Labelle’s [in Lachute, Quebec]. It’s halfway between Ottawa and Montreal. They layer the cheese in between the fries and a layer of sauce. You’ll have two or three layers of cheese, depending on the size of the poutine that you order. Let me tell you, that is worth the drive from Montreal. It might even be worth the drive from Chicago. It’s spectacular.”
Calling poutine the unofficial dish of Canada is a pretty blanket statement. Does that declaration hold water? As a Chicagoan, I know how assumptions about local cuisine can be inaccurate; the rest of the country thinks that we eat deep dish pizza all the time, when the truth is, we don’t. I wondered whether poutine has the same reputation on its home turf.
“When I was younger, I probably ate it a lot more than I do now, but yeah, it’s eaten frequently,” said Kaufman. “By everyone. Everybody eats poutine.”
“Canada doesn’t really have bad poutine,” Tania said. “In my experience, even shitty fast food places and food courts actually try semi-hard on it, which is kind of funny. The thing is that if you commit to the cheese curds, poutine is pretty hard to fuck up from that point.”
Fries, curds, sauce. It’s simple, but it’s a dish Canadians can be proud of.
“I mean, I guess we could be known for worse things than a fast food that is basically agreed upon,” said Kaufman. “That’s a nice thing to hang your hat on.”