The old saying, ‘never say never' certainly applies to food tastes. Here is a case in point. If told I would one day publish a recipe for Quebec’s signature dish, poutine, my response would have been an emphatic, "Never!”. I wouldn't blog about French steak frites either. Both are iconic dishes but poutine has always sounded 'over the top'. Just the thought of French fries covered with cheese curds and a ladle of gravy gives me indigestible. But, what do I know?
It took the intervention of my my son-in-law, Amid, and a recipe from the Sikh candidate for Prime Minister of Canada to cure me of my 'never poutine' attitude. In an unlikely sequence of events, Amid, who rarely cooks, watched parliament member Jagmeet Singh prepare a curried poutine in a Tweet to his many followers. Amid made his poutine; loved it and offered to show me how to show me how to make it while I was in Montreal. I couldn't refuse and followed him into the kitchen.
The backstory gets better. Singh had chosen October 14, Thanksgiving Day in Canada, to Tweet his poutine describing it as his favorite holiday dish. As he expertly sliced onions and stirred the curds, he riffed on how a poutine with curry seasonings symbolized the integration of his Punjab origins and his present life in Canada. It was a brilliant but insufficient campaign tactic. A week later Justin Trudeau narrowly won reelection as Prime Minister. Jagmeet Singh who placed third in a field of six remains a member of Canada’s Parliament and leader of the New Democratic Party.
Jagmeet posted a photo of his handwritten recipe for Punjabi Poutine two days after the Tweet. It reveals poutine’s vast potential for substitution. In his recipe cubed and fried sweet potatoes replace French fries. A spicy tomato sauce stands in for gravy. The constant is cheese curds.
Canadians appear to be addicted to these virtually tasteless blobs of white cheese. Small bags of curds sit next to the cash register in many Montreal food shops. Their dryness allows them to remain stable at room temperature. The best curds are so dry they squeak when you bite into them. That is one of the pleasures of eating poutine.
I like to imagine that the first poutine was created in 1950's Quebec by an inventive short-order cook in a small roadside diner along a snowy two-lane highway. It’s early on a frigid Saturday morning and his bleary-eyed customers are revelers looking for a hangover cure and exhausted long-haul truckers. Poutine, with its hot, crisp fries, squeaky cheese and mouth-coating meat gravy filled the bill and continues to satisfy to this day.