What Is Coronation Chicken and Where Did It Come From?

It’s fair to say that coronation chicken is one of the crown jewels of British cooking—but if you’re not sure what on earth it is, join the club. Or better yet, read on for a complete education on the history, origins, preparation and flavor profile of coronation chicken—a creamy curried poultry dish with a royal past that boasts quite a fanbase across the pond.

What Is Coronation Chicken: History and Origins

Originally called poulet reine Elizabeth, the storied dish now known as coronation chicken dates back to January 1953, when it was first prepared for Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation luncheon. According to Le Cordon Bleu London, the dish was born when Sir David Eccles, the Minister of Works, asked Rachel Hume—a former student of Le Cordon Bleu Paris and the founder of the institute’s London school—to prepare the meal for Her Majesty’s luncheon.

Needless to say, the opportunity to feed foreign dignitaries, as well as the queen herself, was a pretty big deal for Hume and the renowned culinary institute she established in the UK. It was with the help of the school’s talented students that the chef prepared and served coronation chicken, her own original creation, at this prestigious event…and let’s just say it pleased all palates present. Since that defining moment, Le Cordon Bleu London’s reputation for excellence has gone uncontested and coronation chicken has become a much-loved dish that’s enjoyed throughout the nation and still served on the lunch menu of Le Cordon Bleu London.

Coronation Chicken and Rice Salad in Bowl on Table
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What Are the Typical Ingredients Used in Coronation Chicken?

Now you know the historical significance behind coronation chicken’s status as an iconic national dish across the pond…but what is it exactly? Per Le Cordon Bleu London, the dish calls for “chicken, boned and coated in curry cream sauce, with, one end of each dish, a well-seasoned dressed salad of rice, green peas and pimentos.” Setting the sides aside, it’s safe to say that the real royal luncheon magic was in the combination of tender, young roasting chickens and creamy curry, which featured “delicate nut-like flavors running through the sauce.” (There are no nuts, though. Go figure.)

But let’s get down to the nitty-gritty: The original coronation chicken recipe consists of said roasting chickens, carrots, bouquet garni, peppercorns, a splash of red wine, just enough water to cover the non-poultry ingredients and a cream of curry sauce dressing that’s made with curry powder, mayo, creme fraiche, lemon, apricot jam and tomato paste. (If you’re ready to start cooking, you can find the complete recipe at History Extra.)

Homemade Curried Coronation Chicken with Lettuce
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Still, like most dishes that stand the test of time, coronation chicken has evolved over the years. In fact, one of the most significant evolutions in the dish's preparation is that it’s most often served cold or at room temperature today as a curried chicken salad. For example, Le Cordon Bleu London’s modern take on the classic is served sandwich-style on a brioche bun, and features lime juice instead of lemon, plus a simple snap pea garnish in place of the fussy sides.

You’ll find other minor modifications as well—particularly when it’s prepared as a chicken salad, as opposed to, you know, a hot meal for a queen. Case in point: The BBC’s version (video above) has golden raisins and cinnamon in the mix. The takeaway? The basic ingredients of coronation chicken, a chicken dish that’s coated in a curry-spiked mayo dressing, have stayed the same—but don’t be surprised if you encounter some interesting departures when you search for recipes online.

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