Sunday, 6 January 2008

Poulet Reine Elizabeth: Coronation Chicken

On a trip to Malaysia and Singapore some years ago, I swooned around the grand Raffles Hotel for hours, made a pilgrimage to the Eton-esque Malay College (where I was shown the bathroom built for the recent visit of Queen Elizabeth II) and gazed through the gates at Singapore’s Cricket Club. Purchases included an old Raffles advertising poster and a photo taken at the time of 1953 coronation (when both nations were still part of the Empire). My studies of British history surely piqued my interest in imperial artifacts, but I hadn’t expected to be so thrilled by what the colonizers had left behind.

I was equally thrilled by the region’s food. But with the exception of the (somewhat disappointing) Singapore Sling, the local cuisines, which reflect the influence of the region’s substantial Chinese, Indian and Nyonyan (Chinese who intermarried with Malay locals) populations, seem to show little evidence of the former British overlords. Equally, neither classic dishes such as laksa, nasi lemak and beef rendang, nor the addictive melting-pot of sweet, spicy and sour flavours, were transmitted back to Blighty.

The case was otherwise with India, where the duration and intensity of imperial influence was far greater. The former largely gained ingredients, such as tea and beetroot, while British settlers (or, more likely, their Indian cooks) developed hybrid dishes, such as mulligatawny and kedgeree (about which I wrote here). From the Victorian period onwards, curry powders were also introduced to the English domestic market, with the result that by the end of the Raj in 1947, the warming (though usually mild) spice mix had become a pantry staple.

It’s tempting to say that curry powder first achieved marquee status during the 1935 ceremonies for George V’s silver jubilee, when the Palace’s chefs concocted a cold chicken dish dressed with a mix of curry powder and mayonnaise. But undoubtedly the most famous use of the ingredient came at a somewhat later royal celebration: the 1953 coronation of the current Queen, Elizabeth II. Created by Rosemary Hume, founder and director of London's white-glove cookery school, Le Cordon Bleu, Coronation Chicken was prepared for a luncheon of 350 Commonwealth dignitaries. The recipe was also printed in newspapers and magazines, and likely served at many of the street parties held across the nation.

The original recipe called for poaching and deboning whole birds, preparing a cooked curry cream sauce (including wine, tomato puree and dried apricots) to which mayonnaise was then added, and serving the entire dish along a cold, herby rice salad.

Newer versions of this retro classic have simplified matters considerably, often using precooked chicken, making a thick, mayonnaise-based dressing, and utilizing the multi-dimensional chutney instead of several other flavouring agents. I chose to cook my own chicken, though good-quality rotisserie could definitely be substituted. I did notice that the highly-seasoned (French) mayonnaise I used somewhat overwhelmed the other flavours. This is, somewhat regrettably, an instance in which neutral Hellmans may be best.

Coronation Chicken
Serves 2
Total time 70 minutes; Active time: 10-15 minutes

2 chicken legs
Bay leaves
1 heaping tbsp mayo
3-4 tsp mango chutney
½ tsp lemon juice
½ tsp mild curry powder (we used Bolsts madras curry)
Small handful of cilantro
Romaine lettuce leaves to serve (optional)

Place the chicken legs in a wide frying pan or saute pan filled with cold water. Add a few peppercorns, 2 or 3 bay leaves, salt and turn heat to high. As soon as a boil is reached, turn down to a bare simmer. Continue poaching until the chicken is firm and cooked through to the bone. Take off the heat and cool until the meat can be taken off the bone and skin and shredded into bite-sized pieces.

While the chicken cools, make the curry sauce. Add mayo to a bowl, add the curry powder and ½ the chutney. Squeeze in a bit of lemon, and taste. Continue adding chutney until the desired balance of sweetness, heat and creaminess is reached. Season as needed, then mix the chicken through until thoroughly but lightly coated in sauce. Tear or cut the cilantro, top the chicken and serve, possibly on lettuce leaves.

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