Food Facts & Lore

You Say Shepherd’s Pie; I Say China Pie

Most shepherds probably never tasted shepherd’s pie; at least not while on the job. The reason for this is purely practical. Shepherds spent days miles away from the landowner’s cottage. The dish’s ingredients clearly did not lend themselves to carrying out on long, overnight hikes.

We can easily infer from its name and ingredients that Shepherd’s Pie was a product of Great Britain. The original ingredients inform us as well, as lamb was the meat of choice when the dish first became popular, around the late 1700’s. But this is where it gets a bit confusing, for this dish is also commonly called a Cottage Pie. To complicate matters even more, French Canadians call it Pâté Chinois, meaning China Pie.

To make sense of it all, we must go back in time to say, about 8,000 BCE, and pay a visit to the Inca of Peru. The potato is a native of South America and the Inca were the first to recognize its tremendous nutritional value and to cultivate it. Spanish Conquistadors arrived there over 9,000 years later (1536), and brought the potato back to Europe.

About 50 years later, English explorer, writer and politician Sir Walter Raleigh introduced the potato to a 40,000-acres parcel of land he owned in Cork, Ireland. This may have been the largest potato crop in the world at the time. Raleigh is also famous for introducing tobacco to England. But let’s stick to potatoes.

From there, curiously, the recipe for Shepherd’s Pie is assigned mainly to England and for the sole reason that it first appears in print in The Practice of Cookery and Pastry (1854) by Mrs. I. Williamson, an England native. It must be noted that the book was printed in Edinborough, Scotland. However, some scholars observe that almost all Scottish and Irish authors leave the dish out of their recipe box.

This brings us back to a debate on proper ingredients and naming. The name Shepherd’s Pie is assigned to Ireland and Scotland, where the main ingredient was lamb, though sheep keeping was also widespread in England and most of Europe. The English called their version of the dish a Cottage Pie. This is said to predate the use of the name Shepherd’s Pie and refers to the cottage-dwelling peasants for whom the dish was an affordable staple. It is also said that the Scots made theirs with a pastry topping rather than potatoes.  

The widely accepted original Shepherd’s Pie recipe included lamb and in-season winter vegetables. Corn was an American addition and Americans first called this beloved dish a China Pie. If there is French Canadian ancestry or family in your background, you may hereby recall words you’ve heard in the kitchen growing up: pâté chinois.

Many grew up believing that pâté chinois was an expression referring to a mishmash of ingredients. In America, Shepherd’s Pie was first made famous in a small Maine town named China (early 19th-century). French Canadians who traveled back and forth between Quebec and Maine brought the dish back and gave the French twist to its name.

The French of France gave this dish the most straightforward name. They call it Hachis Parmentier. Hachis refers to a mixture of chopped ingredients (as in corned beef hash). Parmentier refers to a dish that is made or served with potatoes.

Countless recipe variations have emerged since Sir Raleigh’s potatoes first ended up mashed and baked to golden perfection atop a shepherd’s pie, cottage pie or pâté chinois, including vegan versions substituting lentils for meat (truly delicious). The potato topping has remained a timeless aspect of the comforting dish throughout its history and migrations. Oh, and let’s not forget the cheese garnish.