Ah, coronation chicken – the mainstay of many a dodgy 1970s buffet, all dry fowl caked in mayonnaise and curry paste with a token scattering of sultanas, its overwhelming feature an alarming yellowness. In its original form it has only the merest hint of curry, being instead – in the words of its co-creator, Constance Spry – “distinguished mainly by a delicate and nut-like flavour in the sauce”.

Coronation chicken, originally named Poulet Reine Elizabeth, was devised by society cook Rosemary Hume, who was one of many chefs employed to work on events celebrating the coronation of Elizabeth II, and Constance Spry, who was her friend and business partner, as well as a celebrity florist and events organiser. The women were working together to cater for a rag-tag bunch of overseas dignitaries dining at an overspill banquet at Westminster School. (The Queen’s own coronation banquet at the palace was much more traditionally French-inspired.). The venue had limited cooking facilities, so their recipe was a convenient solution – a dish that could be prepared in advance, was a crowd-pleaser, and which contained ingredients that were suitably showy in the context of the time.

In 1953, chicken was expensive and other meats still rationed. Most people hadn’t seen a dried apricot since 1940, and it was only six years since the worst year of rationing, when even bread supplies had been limited. All the fat, cream and spices in this new recipe made for a truly upmarket dish.

Their idea was very clever, combining flavours that worked together while remaining firmly within the hybrid Anglo-colonial tradition of borrowed tastes and vaguely French technique. And from 1956, when the recipe was published as coronation chicken in The Constance Spry Cookery Book, it was introduced to kitchens across the world.

Unfortunately, the original recipe, which was delicate and showcased the chicken front and centre, was, to put it mildly, bastardised as it spread. The expensive bit – the chicken – was reduced, while the volume of sauce crept up. The simmering and straining was replaced by spooning from a couple of jars. The result? Yellow goo.

Despite this, the dish remains a firm favourite today. If you’re thinking of serving it this May, take the time to channel your inner 1950s cook – it’s worth it, I promise!


  • (2.5kg) 1 large chicken
  • 1 tbsp finely chopped onion
  • 1 tbsp carrot
  • 1 stick celery
  • Bouquet garni
  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 tbsp butter, for frying
  • 1 tbsp high-quality curry paste (or ½ tbsp curry powder puréed with 1 tsp garlic, 1 tsp ginger and 1 tsp vinegar)
  • 1 tbsp tomato purée
  • 125ml red wine
  • 125ml water
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Pinch of sugar
  • Juice of half a lemon
  • 2 slices of lemon
  • 6 dried apricots, soaked in hot water for 30 minutes then chopped finely
  • 400ml mayonnaise (home-made is best*) 2–3 tbsp whipping or double cream


  • STEP 1

    Cover the chicken with water, then poach together with the carrot, celery, a little salt and the bouquet garni. Cool in the liquid, then remove and dice the meat. (Strained and reduced, the poaching liquid makes an excellent stock or soup base.)

  • STEP 2

    To make the sauce, fry the onion in the butter on a medium heat for 3–4 minutes. Add the curry paste, tomato purée, wine, water, bay leaf, sugar, lemon juice and slices, and bring to the boil. Simmer uncovered for 10 minutes, then strain, season to taste and cool.

  • STEP 3

    Whip mayonnaise into the sauce. Add the minced apricots, taste, and add more lemon juice if needed. Add the cream.

    * To make mayonnaise, whisk an egg yolk with a scant teaspoon of mustard and a decent pinch of fine salt, then slowly dribble in a neutral-flavoured oil – sunflower or rapeseed, for example. Work the mixture until it thickens to the texture of whipped cream, then add 1 tablespoon of tarragon vinegar. If you like an olive oil flavour to your mayonnaise, simply whisk in a couple of tablespoons of a punchy olive oil before you add the vinegar.

  • STEP 4

    Fold just enough of your sauce into the diced chicken to coat each piece.

  • STEP 5

    The original was served alongside a rice salad with peas, diced cucumber, mixed herbs and a vinaigrette dressing.

This recipe was first published in the May 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine


Dr Annie GrayFood historian

Dr Annie Gray is the resident food historian on BBC Radio 4’s The Kitchen Cabinet.