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The journey of Coronation Chicken

This column was not my idea.

Last month, my friend, Ashok Malik, the writer and think-tanker (is that even a word?) messaged me with an idea for Rude Food.


“Hi Vir”, Ashok wrote. “As King Charles’ Coronation approaches — a momentous event in which about 20 of us in India are deeply invested — could you consider writing on Coronation Chicken and what sort of dish would need to be invented to reflect the multicultural Britain of 2023?”


   I loved the irony (“a momentous event in which about 20 of us in India are deeply invested”) and I remembered the dish well because I had the mixed fortune (misfortune?) to go to a (minor) English public school where they served Coronation Chicken.


   The original Coronation Chicken was invented in 1953 by Rosemary Hume and her students at the Le Cordon Bleu school in London to be served at a banquet for dignitaries who had come to London to attend the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.


   Though the banquet was held in England and both Rosemary Hume and the Queen were mostly British (though there has always been some German blood in the British royal family), the dish was given a French name because in that era, all fancy food had to sound French.


   It was called Poulet Reine Elizabeth (“Chicken Queen Elizabeth") and it was suggested that it was an update of a dish created for George V’s Silver Jubilee. In fact the dish was created largely from scratch by Hume to fit very special circumstances.


   The banquet was a luncheon in the Great Hall of Westminster School in London where the kitchen facilities were limited. So Hume opted for a cold chicken dish that did not have to be cooked a la minute. What made the dish unusual was the cold sauce which was made from chopped onion, tomato puree, red wine, bay leaf, apricot puree, lemon, cream and — wait for it — curry powder.


   Why curry powder? Well, the simple explanation is that they did not know much about Indian spices in those days (nor were they readily available in London) but they knew what curry powder was. It couldn’t have been a tribute to the Empire because by 1953, India had already been independent for six years. Nor was Britain the multicultural society that it is today. So my best guess is that Hume just wanted to find a way of making the cold cream sauce come to life and decided to be innovative.


   The dish was, apparently, a huge hit at the banquet where it was washed down with Krug champagne (which, at least, is genuinely French) and more or less disappeared from view after that. Then, three years later, a recipe appeared in the Constance Spry Cookbook under the name of Coronation Chicken after which it became a popular dish. By the time I was first served it, many years later, it had become a staple in many forms: as a sandwich filler, as a sort of salad, as a main course etc.


   "It turned out that Coronation Chicken has a special place on Heston’s palate. It was, he recalls, his first exposure (as a child) to Indian flavours and he loved the spice."

   I regret to say that I was never a fan. But obviously many British people thought differently. In his recent Is This a Cookbook? Heston Blumenthal writes: “Coronation Chicken was a firm favourite in the 1970s when I was growing up. Me and my mom loved it and it was a key part of any picnic we had….”


   Ashok Malik is not the first person to have thought of updating it. Nigella Lawson has a recipe for a version with chilli and mango. Yottam Ottolenghi does a Coronation Chicken Bake with chicken and broccoli. (It sounds utterly revolting.)


   But the first significant official updating came in 2012 for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee when 10,000 people who had won tickets to picnic on the Queen’s lawns at Buckingham Palace were given hampers which included a Jubilee Coronation Chicken. This updated version was created by none other than Blumenthal himself, perhaps as a tribute to all the family picnics where he first ate it. (It helps that he is also a dedicated Royalist and a longtime favourite of the entire Royal family.)


   The menu described the Blumenthal update as “an aromatic blend of Indian spices mixed with mayonnaise, shredded chicken, and fragrant coriander finished with peppery nigella seeds. “


   In other words, no curry powder but lots of Indian masalas and dhania and kalonji.


   So was this actually the multi-cultural update that Ashok had wanted? Was Coronation Chicken already multicultural especially after Blumenthal had updated it?


   I tracked down Heston who was honeymooning on the Thai island of Samui with his bride, the radiant and super-competent Melanie, and he referred me to Is This A Cookbook which has a recipe for Jubilee Coronation Chicken. It’s a great recipe. You can make a sandwich with it. It is not exactly the original that went into his Jubilee hamper but a simplified version for home cooks.


   It turned out that Coronation Chicken has a special place on Heston’s palate. It was, he recalls, his first exposure (as a child) to Indian flavours and he loved the spice. He then went to local Indian restaurants, discovered such dishes as Chicken Korma and began a lifelong love affair with Indian food. (Is this a Cookbook? has terrific Indian recipes.) He has experimented often with Coronation Chicken even once making a Coronation Chicken Ice Cream. He took it up and down the largely Bangladeshi area of Brick Lane in London and everyone loved it.


   The Brits meanwhile have gone ahead with a special dish for the King’s Coronation and disappointingly, it is not particularly multicultural or multi-racial in inspiration. There are those who believe for that an appropriate dish for today’s Britain might be the culinary equivalent of Rishi Sunak on a plate: Punjabi with East African influences, refined by gentle use of South Indian spicing.


   Instead, the Palace has gone with Coronation Quiche containing milk, double cream, cheddar cheese, spinach and broad beans.


   In terms of multi-racial dishes, this is about as white as the milk and cream that are poured into it. But apparently it was chosen by Charles and Camilla themselves. And while the King has done a lot for multiculturalism in the UK, his own tastes are said to run to poached eggs and non-spicy food. But he has campaigned for environmental causes so a vegetarian quiche may accord with his philosophy. Though worryingly, the official recipe released by the Palace call for lard. This rather defeats the vegetarian angle to say nothing of inclusiveness. Lard is pig fat so observant Muslims and Jews may have a problem with the quiche.


   I suppose you could make it without lard but you would have to tinker with the recipe. Either way, it does not sound terribly exciting. I very much doubt that anyone will be writing about it 70 years later as we are still doing with Coronation Chicken or that a great chef like Heston will bother to update it years later.


   The quiche is the creation of Royal Chef Mark Flanagan who collaborated with Heston on the Diamond Jubilee Chicken. Perhaps they should have put the two men again to create a dish which if not fit for a King (who can’t eat much spice) would at least have represented the current state of Charles’s kingdom.


   It can still be done, if not for the Coronation which is on 6 May then for the next royal event!


   So may be …




  • Atul Tiwari 30 Apr 2023

    Dear Sir,
    During my stint in London I had some interesting conversations with my housemates. Coronation chicken is their earliest memory of Indian food. They even had stories on how English got expensive spices from India to make the dish for Queen’s coronation. Later coronation chicken sandwich was their school tiffin meal and they would play kingly games at lunch breaks. ??
    I laughed so much till the other scottish roomate killed the conversation with chicken tikki masala origin in Scotland.

Posted On: 28 Apr 2023 11:20 AM
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