Travellers to Quebec, Canada will surely have encountered the regional speciality food poutine1. This dish consists of chips (or french fries) topped with fresh cheese curds2, covered in brown gravy and served steaming hot. Though it is not exactly health food3, poutine is beloved by the Québecois as a snack or a meal. Ubiquitous in its home province, poutine's popularity has spread across Canada. Any guilt over ingesting so many fat grams will be immediately dispelled upon the first taste of this delicious food.
Many stories circulate as to poutine's origin, but the most commonly accepted version gives credit to Fernand Lachance, who started serving the dish at his restaurant in Warwick, Québec in 1957. According to Lachance, a customer asked for fries and cheese curds in a bag: 'Ça va faire une maudite poutine!'4. 'That's going to make a terrible mess!' Lachance exclaimed, and a new food was born. This unusual combination caught on with customers and quickly became a very popular order. In its original conception, poutine was nothing but fries and cheese curds. Lachance began serving his wife's homemade gravy on the side in 1964. Since the birth of the dish, the Québecois craze for poutine has continued unabated.
A Good Poutine
Poutine may be simple food, but the quality of different versions can range from atrocious to sublime. The secret is in the ingredients. The chips should ideally be as fresh as possible - for poutine at home, this means cutting and frying them yourself. Some purists insist on cooking the fries in lard instead of vegetable oil for the best flavour.
The best cheese curds are made from Cheddar or Gouda. These must also be extremely fresh. Fresh curds will 'squeak' a little when bitten. Cheese curds have a firm consistency and melt only partially on the hot chips. Partially-melted cheese gives the poutine a good texture and keeps it from being a soggy mess. Where fresh cheese curds cannot be found, the closest substitute is probably mozzarella string cheese, chopped up.
Gravy can make or break the success of poutine. Québecois gravy is very different from the thin, light brown American kind. It is dark in colour, with a thick consistency and rich flavour. When making your gravy, look for 'french-fries sauce' or 'poutine mix'. Alternatively, try your favourite chicken sauce mix or the best gravy mix you can find. Vegetarians, don't despair — there are many gravy mixes available that are completely vegan.
To make your own poutine, try this recipe. Poutine should be served hot immediately after cooking.
The Many Faces of Poutine
Many cooks have put their own personal stamp on this popular food. The original cheese-curd-and-gravy version has inspired many variations. One of the most popular of these is 'Italian' poutine. Spaghetti or pizza sauce, with or without meat, is used in place of gravy, and pizza cheese is melted on top. Other ingredients that can be added are pepperoni or sausage, or chopped vegetables...the possibilities are endless!