I’m from Montreal. Let’s first make that clear. I grew up there. And I haven’t been home at all, not even for a visit, in close to two years.
When I lived in Montreal, I didn’t care much for poutine. While I love fries, gravy, and cheese curds individually, their combination into a soggy mess mostly left me cold. I rarely expressed this opinion aloud, as poutine is so beloved in my hometown that were I to do so, I would surely have been subject to hostile attacks from anyone who heard me.
So I kept them to myself and ate my poutine dutifully.
Yet, somehow, in the two years since I’ve been home, poutine has taken on symbolic importance in my life to a totemic degree.
Everywhere I went in my travels, whenever I saw poutine on the menu, I became incredibly excited and proud that poutine had made it so far.
There was one problem, however. None of those places serve poutine. Sure, they had the word “poutine” on the menu. And when you ordered it, they brought you something with fries and gravy and cheese, but fries and gravy and cheese do not poutine make.
The key to poutine is this: cheese curds. It’s all about the cheese curds.
Before I left Montreal, I didn’t realize how much of specialty food cheese curds were. I hadn’t realized that most people, even cheese-loving people, don’t know what cheese curds are or why we Quebeckers love them. Cheese curds are not a type of cheese. They are a byproduct of making cheese. They are like little balls of dairy product with a very specific, squeaky texture. They also don’t melt easily and when you add them to your fries and gravy, they only slightly melt.
So when I heard that two Montrealers had opened a Montreal-style smoke meat restaurant in Shanghai, and that poutine was on the menu, my hopes were up. Could these Montrealers be serving real poutine, with the all-important cheese curds? Could I even dare hope?
I went to Tock’s on Canada Day. On my way to the restaurant, I got so excited when I saw the sign that I had to pace back and forth while waiting to cross the street. I was in a state of highly fraught anticipation.
When the waitress brought me my poutine, my heart swelled. It looked right. Then, I took a bite of the cheese.
It did not squeak. They were not cheese curds.
At first, I thought that maybe it was just that the cheese curds were not fresh. Perhaps they had been frozen. Then, my dining companion took a forkful of the cheese substance, tasted it and said, “It’s a block of cheddar cheese.”
It seems petty to complain. Tock’s has the closest thing to poutine in China, and probably outside of Canada (and Minnesota). The cheese is the right shape. The gravy is good. It’s 90% there.
But they don’t have cheese curds. And without cheese curds, can it really be called poutine?
Or am I holding all poutine in the world to an impossibly high standard? I eat and enjoy all sorts of regional food that aren’t 100% authentic and accurate. I know this, and yet I still enjoy the food for what it is. When Chinese immigrants went to the US and couldn’t find gailan, they made use of broccoli instead, and created beef and broccoli, a well-loved staple of Chinese restaurants in the West. I don’t begrudge them that. Of course not. Pizza in New York is not exactly like pizza in Italy, yet no one would deny its legendary deliciousness.
So maybe I should just let it go. Let the cheese curds go. Accept that when a food becomes popular and famous, there will be others who try to make it, and put their own spin on it. Montreal gave the world poutine. And part of the price of being the birthplace of such a world-famous food is accepting that there will be inauthentic, inexact replicas elsewhere in the world.
So, if I were to judge the poutine at Tock’s simply on its merits as a food, how would I rate it?
Well, it’s basically a bunch of soggy fries with cheese. And I’m not really into that.
Oh, and the smoked meat was not bad.
Tock’s – 221 Henan Zhong Lu, near Fuzhou Lu, Huangpu district (黄浦区河南中路221号, 近福州路). Tel: 152-2113-3516. Hours: 11am-5pm daily.