Photograph by Christie Vuong
By Niya Bajaj
Butter chicken poutine could be the poster child for Canadian food culture, marrying as it does some tender, saucy chicken with French fries and paneer, cheese curds or mozzarella. Yes, it successfully fuses different culinary traditions into a comforting dish. But is it more than the sum of its parts, or merely a fatty, salty, Frankenstein example of gastronomic appropriation and industrial profiteering? For both culinary and cultural reasons, the foundations of this fusion food are worth investigating.
Butter chicken originated at the Moti Mahal restaurant in Delhi, India, in the 1950s. In an exercise of restaurant-kitchen economics, cooks combined tandoori chicken juices with butter and tomatoes to create the sauce we know today, then poured the results over traditional tandoor-cooked chicken. Butter chicken migrated west with immigrant restaurateurs, and is now as popular in their adopted countries as it is in India.
Butter chicken and its cousin, chicken tikka masala, are internationally beloved, and considered national dishes in the United Kingdom. They are just as popular in Canada, and both feature on menus across the country. Butter chicken is a signature dish at B.C.’s Curry in Surrey; across the country, India Gate in St. John’s, NL, is reputed to serve some of Canada’s best. Grocery store chains offer their own house-brand butter chicken sauces.
Around the same time, poutine began its life on Canadian soil. While there is still contention about which rural Quebec town is responsible for the dish of French fries topped with cheese curds and gravy, there is no question about its popularity or place in our food culture. Poutine arrived in Quebec City in 1969, and Montreal in 1983. From there it infiltrated chip-truck menus across the country and beyond: in 2013, it featured on the menu of a Government of Canada food truck promoting Canadian cuisine. Most recently, a poutine truck has been making the rounds of local street markets in London, England.
Butter chicken poutine probably made its earliest appearances in restaurants owned by East Indian immigrants: craving a taste of home, they were also ooking for ways to introduce their new communities to their culture. Food is an excellent gateway through which to extend that welcome. Combining a food from what Canadians perceived as an “exotic” culture (butter chicken), with an iconic food from the country that is now home (poutine) allowed curious palates to explore while staying grounded in the familiar.
This novel comfort food created a space for conversation: butter chicken poutine opened lines of communication, bringing Canadians together over a shared appreciation of food that sates physical and emotional hunger while fostering understanding that, hopefully, runs deeper than surface-level “tolerance.”
Recently, butter chicken poutine has seen success outside of restaurants owned and operated by immigrant families. New York Fries added it to its menu in 2011, and has not looked back. Industrial food multinationals Kraft and Sysco provide butter chicken poutine recipes for commercial kitchens and cafeterias. Patak’s, a leading producer of authentic Indian products, encourages home cooks to make their own butter chicken poutine with a recipe on its Canadian website. With restaurants across Canada and the United States, Smoke’s Poutinerie is using its version to dominate the global market.
Louis Bourgeois of Poutine Centrale in Montreal first added butter chicken poutine to his menu because he loved butter chicken himself. “And when we tested ideas on friends, they loved it,” he recalls. Now it's a signature dish, and one of Poutine Centrale’s most popular offerings. “Canadians don't really have Canadian dishes,” Bourgeois says, other than poutine itself and, perhaps, indigenous bannock. “As long as it tastes great and you know what to put together, why not butter chicken poutine?”
As immigrants become enmeshed in their communities, their foods seem less exotic and more like familiar staples. To food writer and researcher Mary Luz Meija, dishes like butter chicken poutine are “inclusive, delicious, fun, festive and respectful to the original ingredients and cultures.” She notes that when fusion is done with the right spirit, it honours the roots of the dishes while creating something uniquely Canadian.
Not everyone agrees that fusion adds value, however. Journalist and author Sarah B. Hood is among the dissenters. “Butter chicken is a brilliant blend of complex flavours. Poutine is essentially a cheap, high-calorie, working-class food that's designed to keep someone stoked with fats and starches when they're working hard in cold weather," says Hood. "There's no way the butter chicken is improved by being added to the poutine. Starchy, fatty foods are often good with a shot of hot, sweet and/or salty flavour but using butter chicken to do the job is a bit like pulling the plough with your Porsche.”
Whether adored or abhorred, butter chicken poutine has arrived in the hearts and minds of Canadians from sea to shining sea. On MasterChef Canada, contestant Jennifer Innis of Vernon, B.C., prepared butter chicken poutine with her cross-country team, which included New Brunswick veteran Line Pelletier, B.C. native Tammy Wood, and Newfoundlander Kristen Dwyer. None of the women grew up cooking either butter chicken or poutine: nonetheless, both were familiar foods for both the team and for the University of Guelph students who voted them to victory.
Foods evolve to reflect their surrounding cultures, and this particular combination of two “ethnic” dishes has gone from fad to trend to staple. While it’s no maple syrup or Saskatoon berry, butter chicken poutine is a truly Canadian food that reflects a country that's always willing to embrace new flavours - as long as they taste good.