“When people say they’ve eaten poutine râpée, it’s an event.”
Every region has its own comfort food—that dish that you just can’t wait to get back home to eat again. For Montreal, maybe it’s a smoked meat sandwich. Or in Newfoundland, the Jiggs’ dinner. For folks with Acadian roots, it’s likely poutine râpée.
Acadians, the French descendants who arrived in Canada in the early 1600s, settled in various parts of rural New Brunswick, PEI and Nova Scotia. After a wide-scale deportation due to politics in the mid-1700s, followed by a return to their homes by 1764, Acadians have worked hard to maintain their culture, including their classic food dishes.
Although poutine râpée is not a traditional French dish, the exact origin is uncertain. Some say that it might have had some influence from the knodel potato dumplings the German immigrants made.
“Rasped potato dumplings can be found in all kinds of places,” says Simon Thibault, food writer and author of Pantry and Palate: Remembering and Rediscovering Acadian Food.
“In fact Sweden has a version known as palt, which, like its Canadian cousin, is often served with both sweet and savoury accompaniment.”
The ingredients in poutine râpée are simple—lots of potatoes (the Acadians were farmers and potatoes were easy to grow in this region), salt and salt-cured pork. But making poutine râpée is anything but simple.
“I cut the poutine râpée up and fry it in some duck fat or pork fat and it gets all nice and crispy.”
“Making poutine râpée is an art and takes practice,” says Michel Savoie, chef-owner of Moncton’s Les Brumes du Coude. “Otherwise when you boil them, they break down or explode. That’s why people are pretty happy to go to the shop to buy them.”
It’s a long, exacting process to make poutine râpée. To begin, they have to be just the right texture and the right size. That is somewhere between the size of a softball and a baseball. Then, you have to grate the potatoes quick enough to keep them from browning, while also keeping in mind that the grated potatoes can’t be too wet. Sometimes commercial kitchens have washers and dryers for this purpose. Even after you stuff them, they must then be simmered in a broth for an additional two to three hours.
When Alain Bosse, known as the Kilted Chef, decided to include poutine râpée in his recipe book, The Acadian Kitchen: Recipes from Then and Now, he had three home cooks do the recipe testing.
“Only one out of the three didn’t have their râpées explode on them,” says Bosse.
Although the finished poutine râpées look a bit greyish and are a fairly gelatinous texture – kind of like sticky rice – they taste much better than they look. The flavour is bland, which gives it the versatility to be enjoyed as a savoury dish with salt and pepper, or as a sweet dish, sprinkled with sugar, molasses or maple syrup. Some people eat them with ketchup.
“Personally, I prefer it as a leftover,” says Savoie. “I cut the poutine râpée up and fry it in some duck fat or pork fat and it gets all nice and crispy. The glutinous part of the potato is still inside, but the outside is crunchy.”
There are still a few restaurants scattered along the New Brunswick Acadian Peninsula where you can eat poutine râpée, or get them to-go. In Moncton, there’s Chez Memère.
“This nostalgic dish is a dying culture,” says Savoie. “When people say they’ve eaten poutine râpée, it’s an event. In New Brunswick there are probably not more than 10 restaurants left that sell it.”
Other restaurants, like Savoie’s own Les Brumes du Coude, cook them only for special occasions. On New Year’s Eve, he makes them into bite-size appetizers, filled with stuffing like fois gras or sweetbreads, just to be fancy.
It’s even more rare to find poutine râpée in Nova Scotia or PEI, but they do have a similar dish called rappie pie (also known as rapure). “For this recipe you grate and drain the potatoes, then reconstitute them with some kind of broth and bits of meat or seafood and onion, then bake it for several hours in the oven,” says Bosse.
Thibault agrees that poutine râpée is not part of the culinary landscape of Acadians in Nova Scotia. “Really, it’s mostly a Moncton-area thing, but that’s the beauty of Acadian foods—they’re way more diasporic than you might think,” he says. “In southwestern Nova Scotia, where I grew up, poutine râpées are added to fricot (traditional Acadian stew). Golfball-sized dumplings add heft and a certain stick-to-your ribs-ness to the dish.”
It’s easy to see why there’s a lot of nostalgia attached to poutine râpée. “I don’t think there’s anything you can debate about the pride Acadian people have of eating this folkloric dish,” says Savoie.
On your next visit to New Brunswick, give this tasty potato dish a try and see what you think.
Kate Robertson is a freelance journalist living in the Kootenay Mountains of British Columbia. She specializes in travel, food, wellness and outdoor adventure writing. She’s contributed to publications like Canadian Traveller, Fodor’s, Lonely Planet and Zagat Stories. You can follow Kate on Instagram @kateflysolo101 and on Twitter @kateflyingsolo, or check out her work at her website http://www.katerobertson.ca.
Illustration: Megan Hunt, an Inuk artist and animator based in Iqaluit, Nunavut.
All photo credits: Courtney Edgar.
The featured poutine râpée dish was prepared by Moncton-based restaurant Chez Memère Poutine Et Râpée.