Chicken Curry/ Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

Commemorating the Coronation with food

The Coronation of King Charles III took place on 6th May. Like Christmas and Easter, chain supermarkets launched various coronation foods to mark the occasion. There are new caterpillar cakes and chicken curry products, alongside the usual cupcakes with a fondant golden crown or British flag. But how is the monarchy related to the caterpillar cake or a curry?

Caterpillar cake 

Nearly all supermarkets launched a coronation version of the caterpillar cake.

Waitrose was the most creative, (it didn’t just add a crown onto the caterpillar’s head like its competitors). Instead, it designed the ‘Jewel the Jack Russel Cake’, which replaced the iconic caterpillar with a dog, as a homage to the King’s Jack Russel dogs. However, it is still a chocolate sponge rolled with chocolate-flavoured buttercream. After you eat the sugar head, it morphs into a regular caterpillar cake. 

How is the caterpillar cake associated with the royal family? 

Colin the Caterpillar cake was first invented in 1990. Popular children’s book The Very Hungry Caterpillar transformed caterpillars into colourful child-friendly characters, contributing to the cake’s commercial success. The cake gradually became the first ‘English’ cake sold across the nation, thanks to the advertising campaign. 

As a result, a whole generation grew up with Colin. Having Colin featured at their childhood birthday parties, they continue to buy the cake for their children after they grow up. The cake’s core recipe and supplier have remained unchanged for over 30 years, giving a sense of familiarity and solace.

It aligns with what the royal family wants to convey: the tradition of the British monarchy grants certainty in the uncertain world. Whether you agree with the monarchy or not, the cultural depth of food can’t be ignored. 

Royal colours

Changing colours is the easiest way to make an ordinary food item festive. Supermarkets launched plain vanilla cakes topped with blue and red frosting as coronation cupcakes. Many also sold gingerbread featuring a purple crown. While blue and red allude to the Union Jack, purple has represented royalty since the Persian king wore a purple tunic as his royal uniform in 550 BC.

By the 19th century, dye-makers had to extract the purple mucus of sea snails to make purple dye. The complicated process made the colour a symbol of wealth. In the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I even prohibited members of the British public from wearing purple.  

Certain colours may have symbolised prestige historically, but they don’t change the taste of food. I tried Marks & Spencer’s coronation meringue with a blue-coloured swirl, a gigantic meringue without rich layers of tastes and textures. Artificial food dye may not trigger any sensation in your taste buds, but it might trigger your sense of national pride.

Coronation chicken

At the coronation banquet of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, many foreign guests tried a special yellow dish. There were cold chicken chunks in curry cream sauce, accompanied by an assortment of rice, peas, and herbs. Invented by two British chefs, this dish was later known as coronation chicken. 

Coronation chicken products now are found everywhere. There are coronation chicken sandwiches and baguettes, sandwich fillers and sauce. Nowadays, the ingredients of coronation chicken usually include a range of spices (such as clove and cumin), as well as fruit like mango and apricot. 

Supermarkets have introduced coronation chicken flavoured products without chicken, such as crisps. The flavour of chicken in Marks and Spencer’s chips is lacking and are much saltier than regular crisps. They have a hint of sourness, which leaves a slight aftertaste of curry and spices.

The spice flavour was also subdued in Sainsbury’s coronation bloomer and lingered slightly in the aftermath. Described as ‘wheat bread with sultanas, mango chutney, and curry spice’, it is bright yellow with a strong smell of curry. Yet, the sweetness of sultanas dominates the flavour and the tanginess of mango chutney is missing. There is a bit of curry, but no hint of chicken at all. I am doubtful if these products without chicken preserve the royal tradition.

The coronation chicken thus represents not only a yellow dish but the legacy of the 89-year colonial rule

Curry is an adopted tradition originating from India, which has become integral to British culture. When the coronation chicken was invented, India had been independent from Britain for six years. The influx of Indian immigrants to Britain resulted in the introduction of Indian food in the 1950s, including the development of the sweeter, thicker British curry. The chicken curry represents not only Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation, but also the legacy of the 89-year colonial rule. 

The coronation holds different meanings for everyone. For some, it may be a historical moment and, for others, it might be nothing more than a bank holiday, (especially for students who need the time to revise). It is also a valuable commercial event for supermarkets to capitalise on: I spent £5.70 on buying a bloomer, a pack of crisps and a meringue.

Regardless of how you feel about the monarchy, the coronation is a sweet and spicy intersection of history, culture, and commerce.     


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