Created for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, the posh, delicately flavored chicken has, like Britain itself, changed a bit since. What was originally an aristocratic paragon of classic French technique has been democratized into a weeknight-easy chicken salad. Though enormously popular in Britain as a sandwich filling and baked-potato topper, this ocher-tinted, raisin-studded dish would be unrecognizable to any of the 350 dignitaries who partook of its regal ancestor.
Recipe: Coronation Chicken Salad
The original, developed at the Cordon Bleu culinary school in London, was called “poulet Reine Elizabeth.” A dish of cold poached chicken in a rose-hued sauce made from red wine, mayonnaise, whipped cream, apricot purée and a faint whiff of curry powder, it was served alongside a pea-studded rice salad at a coronation banquet to the queen’s honored guests (but not likely to the queen herself).
Sejal Sukhadwala, a London-based food writer and author of “The Philosophy of Curry,” describes that dish as shaped by French cuisine with a nod toward colonial India, and based on the jubilee chicken created in 1935 for George V, who, like his grandmother Queen Victoria, had a penchant for curries.
“The curry powder in coronation chicken was probably an acknowledgment of the influence of the empire and a tribute to the two previous curry-loving monarchs,” Ms. Sukhadwala wrote in an email.
Over the years, the recipe has become something more accessible to British home cooks. Out went the red wine reduction, whipped cream, homemade mayonnaise and apricot purée; in came jarred mayonnaise, golden raisins, sliced almonds and mango chutney, pantry staples you could quickly stir together in one bowl. And what was once a pinch of curry powder grew to several tablespoons, staining the mix a vivid — some say lurid — yellow.
By the 1980s, coronation chicken salad had become ubiquitous in Britain, found in ready-made sandwiches at Marks & Spencer and on backyard bridal and baby shower menus alike.
This steep ascent was fueled by what the British food writer Gurdeep Loyal, author of “Mother Tongue: Flavours of a Second Generation,” calls a revival of Raj nostalgia that set in with Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as prime minister.
Coronation chicken “wants to evoke the peacocks and rubies, the grandeur and spice of regal Indian dynasties, without actually delivering any strong flavors,” Mr. Loyal said.
Yet he’s a fan. His version, which uses a complex Punjabi masala with black and green cardamom, ajwain, fennel and tamarind, alludes to the beloved 1980s version of his childhood while celebrating Mr. Loyal’s identity as a second-generation British Indian.
“I’m un-diluting its Indianness,” he said.
Still, the 1980s version is delightful, and a snap to make.
The key is to choose your ingredients carefully. Start with cooked chicken that already has loads of flavor, whether you’re poaching it yourself or buying a rotisserie bird from the store. Find a mango chutney brand that’s complex and not too sweet. Use a good, tangy mayonnaise, ideally homemade. And — if you can find it — stir in curry paste from a jar instead of curry powder, which, depending on the brand, can have a raw, acrid undertone.
The result is a dish for the people that’s fit for a king. Which you might be hard-pressed to say about quiche.