Evolution of classic stirs arguments about what exactly can be called 'poutine'

Poutine from Chez Ashton in Quebec City (Flickr/LWYang)

This story is part of a week-long series exploring how we as Canadians define "Canadian food," and how it has evolved in modern Canada.

It’s a true Canadian classic: the combination of fresh salty fries, gooey cheese curds and hot gravy are known to us in the North as “poutine.” From its humble beginnings in Quebec, it has evolved into one of Canada’s national culinary treasures and is listed on many menus across the country. From fine dining to fast food, this dish is served up with a side of ingenuity as the trend moves toward delicious toppings other than just the traditional squeaky Quebec curd.

The exact origin of the great Canadian grub is much debated, however Quebec is widely known as its birthplace. Poutine began filling the bellies of Quebecers in the late 1950s in snack bars near Centre-du-Quebec, where cheese curds were added to fries and doused in gravy to keep the meal warm. Since then it has evolved into a Canadian staple, with restaurants putting their own twist on the classic to keep the idea fresh.

Food culture enthusiast and Le Merchant Mangeur blogger Na’eem Adam created a week-long, multi-city celebration of the poutine trend with La Poutine Week. The event includes local restaurants in Montreal, Toronto, Quebec City, Ottawa, Sherbrooke and other culinary hotbeds who then compete to be crowned the winner of best poutine in the city. Adam says they stray from the classic by adding fun toppings, a practice that started with Montreal-based celebrity chef Chuck Hughes.

“Maybe about ten years ago, he took a poutine and added lobster on top of it,” he says. “It was a ‘lobster poutine’ and it was crazy. Everyone just went bonkers for it because I think it was the first time where somebody did something a little bit different. Since then, I think that’s where the trend has really picked up to do different things.”

The newly-enhanced poutine has quickly become a Canadian culinary trend, and the more outrageous the toppings the better. Bacon, pulled pork, fried egg, and veggies are some of the tamer toppings, but the list of options is endless. La Poutine Week seeks to discover the next big take on the movement, and Adam has discovered several crazy delicious combos along the way.

If it doesn’t have those three ingredients (fries, cheese and gravy) then it’s just not [poutine], it’s like it could be called a salad.
—Na’eem Adam, Le Merchant Mangeur blogger

“For example, we had a middle eastern restaurant make a poutine,” he says. “They had the foundation which was very Quebecois and had the three essential ingredients and then added shwarma on top of it. It was delicious. They got ‘Judge’s Choice’ for the best poutine last year.”

But is it still poutine?

With all of the additions, toppings and tweaks made to the original recipe, what makes poutine “poutine?” Adam says that regardless of the toppings, true poutine should have a base of fries, curd and gravy to carry the hallowed moniker.

“I think the important fact of all of this is to always keep the foundation as Quebecois as possible, so true to the traditional recipe,” He says. “That means always to have the fries, cheese curd and the gravy, and the trend has been for the chef to find a way to adapt that to kind of show a little bit of where he’s coming from. So they always add their own little flair to it, whether it’s a mountain of bacon or truffles or vegetables.”

New variations have been popping up all over the place, with fast-food chains like Burger King and McDonald’s cashing in on the trend. Fast food joints aren’t where most poutine enthusiasts would go to grab a forkful of the classic, but in a pinch or when stumbling home from the bar after last call, these options certainly do the trick.

McDonald’s chose to liven up their “world famous” fries in 2013 and have stayed true to tradition with classic cheese curd and seasoned gravy. And as if there wasn’t enough of a rivalry between the fast food giants already, Burger King has also launched its own poutine. The base is the same, never straying from the classic curd-and-gravy combo, but BK has chosen to follow the toppings trend. Burger King has brought to the table a bacon poutine, an “angry” version with jalapenos and has even tried out a burger poutine with, you guessed it, all the fixings of a burger thrown on top.

Several other fast food giants like Wendy's, Harvey's, Mary Brown's, New York Fries and many others have also come to bat with their own version to satisfy Canadian taste buds, (because honestly a person should be able to order poutine at any restaurant they walk into in Canada). However the best bet is always the sloppy, home-style version you can only really get at your go-to “poutine joint,” of which every town undoubtedly has at least one of.

Dessert poutine divides the loyal

One surprising player in the poutine game is Tim Hortons, who this year introduced the “Timbits Poutine” as a temporary treat at the CNE. Like the original, it takes a base carb (Timbits) and tops it with sauce. Unlike the original, the classic combo of cheese, fries and gravy are nowhere to be seen.

Alicia Cardoso and Natasha Falcioni are the creators of Cake Poutine, another sweet twist on the craze that was available at the Canadian National Exhibition. The “fries” are made from vanilla bean cake cut to resemble the classic starchy base, and each flavour comes with its own “gravy” of warm chocolate, caramel or strawberry sauce. The toppings trend is in full swing on Cake Poutine with flavours like “Maple Bacon Eh?;” “The Campfire,” which incorporates all the components to make s’mores; and “The Canadian,” with a strawberry sauce and white chocolate chips. What the sweet creation lacks in tradition, it makes up for in deliciousness but can it be labeled as such?

“We believe that our idea sparked a lot of people to get into the whole ‘sweet poutine’ thing based on people's reactions,” Cardoso says. “A poutine is served warm and messy, but with a taste that'll leave your mouth watering for more, which is what our product generates in people.”

Co-founders of La Poutine Week Thierry Rassam and Na'eem Adam enjoy the good stuff. (La Poutine Week)

As a poutine connoisseur, Adam says he disagrees that these sweeter options fall under the poutine category.

“The meaning of the word means ‘a hot mess’ and so it’s essentially to bring ingredients together in a messy way and that’s where the foundation of it came from,” Adam says. “If it doesn’t have those three ingredients (fries, cheese and gravy) then it’s just not, it’s like it could be called a salad.”

Whatever the stance may be, there is no arguing that the yummy flavours combine to create a tasty take on tradition and Cardoso says that sales reflect Canada’s love for the staple.

Due to the great responses that we are receiving from our customers, we plan to continue with Cake Poutine,” she says. “We would like to introduce other sweets into our product such as Nutella, ice-cream, deep fried batter, and much more.”

Regardless of how it’s prepared, the Canadian flag has been planted in poutine and it is clearly here to stay.