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Why do the Irish love chicken fillet rolls so much? It’s not all about taste

The Emerald Eats food stall is mobbed daily with Irish-Londoners on their lunch break. But it’s not so much selling Irish street food as a story

The Irish have no claim to inventing the chicken sandwich. Though you would be forgiven for falling for such exceptionalist stories given the viral success of Emerald Eats in London. The market stall saw a gap in the market and ran: there are about 200,000 Irish in London and almost nowhere to buy a chicken fillet roll. It was a shrewd decision: Emerald Eats is mobbed daily with Irish-Londoners on their lunch break looking for a roll or a take on the Dublin spice bag. Build it and they will come, etc. TikTok influencers have unofficially branded the operation as “Irish street food” (pish).

What, exactly, is it about the chicken fillet roll that conveys such romance for the Irish? Perhaps it’s because it’s made freshly in front of you; as good after the pub as it is before lunch; it’s warm; it’s nostalgic for émigrés; there are no equivalent deli counters in London meaning the sandwich is distinctly not British (this matters to some people…) The humility of a chicken sandwich can convey a serious national story. There is, in fact, nothing frivolous about breaded chicken, lettuce, onion and a baguette.

Take for example the banh mi. The French brought the baguette to Vietnam in the middle of the 19th century; the Vietnamese combined it with local flavours; after the Vietnam War the banh mi saw international success. It is a tale of cultural fusion, European imperialism, southeast Asian agricultural practice. Or, how about the “chicken parm” or Parmigiana? Thanks – in part – to terrible food insecurity in early 20th-century Italy, the east coast of the United States saw a wave of immigration. And thus Italian-American cuisine was born and we were blessed with spaghetti and meatballs. Chick-fil-A is a vestige of the 20th-century deep south America.

Just as everyone in Ireland has their specific order at a deli counter, there is no one in London without an opinion on the best sandwich from Pret-A-Manger (jambon buerre, FYI). The fast casual chain (now with a few locations in Dublin) is more than a convenience. Its success became a genuine economic indicator after the pandemic, a map of when and how frequently bankers, lawyers and asset managers were returning to the office. It is also an expression of London’s metropolitan values: a city whose favourite chain has a French name; a city where there is little time for a long lunch but always space for a pint in the Red Lion after work.


I find the adage “politics is downstream of culture” redundantly obvious. It is probably better to think that politics and culture are inseparable ideas, coexistent on one another. I am reminded – bear with me – of a conversation I had with my dad about Beyoncé's recent country album Cowboy Carter. I contended that I find it hard to connect with Beyoncé – her life is too rarefied, my generation is a shade too young to have grown up listening to her, she doesn’t ventriloquise the feelings of teenage angst like Taylor Swift does. But on a few more listens I learned more from this album than I have ever really learned from Swift. It is not explicitly didactic but in its references – Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline, Chuck Berry – it tells a story of the relationship between black artists and country music, and it reveals the simplicity of western tropes. “Beyoncé has ventured into Louisiana Cajun country, the rivers of Alabama, the streets of Memphis, the great Oklahoma plains, and within her memories of multiracial Texas rodeos to create yet another world in her image,” Pitchfork explains.

Whether it’s a sandwich,or Beyoncé, cultural production tells us far more about a place than its politics ever could. This is another version of the argument that fiction contains more truths than non-fiction: not facts that would help on a trivia night, but the fundamental human things that can only really be expressed by the unnamed narrator in My Year of Rest and Relaxation or John le Carré's George Smiley. Cicero was always greater in his exaggeration and counterfactuals than he was in his adherence to strict reality and minor detail.

There is nothing inherently Irish about the chicken fillet roll – baguettes are French, New York has delis, chicken is eaten pretty much everywhere. But the genius behind Emerald Eats is that they latched on to a national mythology – no matter how credible it really is – and exploited the nostalgia of customers. We can talk about something as mundane as a sandwich stall in Farringdon as though it is the physical manifestation of Ireland’s emigrants; or perhaps its history of cultural exchange.

In reality, all Emerald Eats needed to do was tell a story – it doesn’t matter which one. There is a lesson for politicians in here. Stories – as understood through food and music and spy detective novels – will always matter. This, coincidentally, is why faith will always be a more compelling position than atheism. And why behind every great company you will always find an even greater marketing department.