The term cottage pie is known to have been in use in 1791, when the potato was being introduced as an edible crop affordable for the poor (cf. "cottage" meaning a modest dwelling for rural workers).
In early cookery books, the dish was a means of using leftover roasted meat of any kind, and the pie dish was lined with mashed potato as well as having a mashed potato crust on top.
The term "shepherd's pie" did not appear until the 1870s, and since then it has been used synonymously with "cottage pie", regardless of whether the principal ingredient was beef or mutton.There is now a popular tendency for "shepherd's pie" to be used when the meat is mutton or lamb, with the suggested origin being that shepherds are concerned with sheep and not cattle, This may, however, be an example of folk etymology.
- Though in modern day recipes it is considered standard to use mashed potato as a topping, traditionally it was served with slices of potato layered over the meat filling which, when cooked, looked like the tiles of a cottage roof. This is thought to be how the dish got its name.
- A similar British dish made with fish is a fish pie.
- A vegetarian version can be made using soya or other meat substitutes (like tofu), or legumes such as lentils or chick peas.
- In the Dominican Republic this is called pastelón de papa (potato casserole), it has a layer of potatoes, one or two of meat, and another of potatoes, topped with a layer of cheese.
- In Ireland the dish is commonly called shepherd's pie even when containing beef.
- In Jordan, Syria and Lebanon a similar dish is referred to as "Siniyet Batata" (literally meaning a plate of potatoes), or "Kibbet Batata".
- In Russia, a similar dish is called "Картофельная запеканка" (Kartofel'naya zapekanka, or "potato baked pudding").