Poutine is the French-Canadian dish that is comprised of French fried potatoes with cheese and rich gravy. What type of French fry, what type of cheese and what type of gravy is where different purveyors and devourers of this “heart attack on a plate” find room for individuality, to say nothing about what additions one can include under the same name.
First off, it seems that poutine is a Quebecois invention, originating in the Montreal area in the 1950s. Various stories abound about the combination of French fries and cheese, but it seems that the gravy was added later to keep everything warm.
Traditionalists will tell you that the French fries need to be a standard cut from Russet potatoes. No steak fries, no shoestring potatoes, no curly fries or wrinkle cut, and no frozen fried potatoes. Pommes de terre frites are made by deep-frying the potatoes in 325 degree oil for 3 to 4 minutes before draining them and allowing them to cool. At this point they are limp, uncolored, but cooked through. When all the potatoes have been precooked, the oil is reheated to 375 degrees and the potatoes are fried a second time until golden browned and crisp. After draining on paper towels, they are lightly salted while still warm. These fried potatoes are crisp on the outside and soft and creamy on the inside.
Next is the question of the cheese. In Quebec the fresh cheddar cheese curd is the standard. This cheese is so fresh it squeaks when you chew into it. Ideally it is not more than 1 day old. If this curd were to become standard cheddar, the curd would be salted, packed into molds, and aged in a cave for a number of months before being released for sale. Some poutine purveyors use mozzarella, Cheese Whiz, shredded cheddar, American, Swiss or Gruyere.
Last is the question of what type of gravy one uses. The standard is chicken or turkey gravy, mildly spiced and seasoned with pepper. Some places use veal gravy, which has a more neutral taste but greater mouth feel, or duck gravy. Usually beef or pork gravy is avoided (unless you are at a Tunbridge Fair French fry cart).
In Montreal they like to take poutine to another level, so some restaurants offer it with bacon, the Tunisian lamb sausage merguez, Montreal-style smoked meats, shredded turkey and peas. The real fancy places take it way over the top with foie gras, caviar and even truffles.
Other cultures have their own variations on the poutine theme. In Italy they add a meat and tomato sauce to fried potatoes. Sometimes they add sausage. In Greece they top their potatoes with vinaigrette, feta cheese and gravy, and in Mexico they have carne asada fries consisting of shoestring potatoes, carne asada (roasted beef cut into strips), guacamole, sour cream, cheese and pico di gallo, the condiment made of chopped tomato, onions, hot chili peppers and lemon juice. In NY they have “Elvis fries” with mozzarella and brown gravy and cheese fries are usually made with American processed cheese or mozzarella.