Australia’s favorite food is meat pies. Here’s what to do if you don’t like meat.

A meat pie soaked in gravy sitting on a plate with french fries.
Michael’s dinner one night — a steak meat pie with gravy.

I have a theory that every culture in the world has some delectable dish that involves meat and/or veggies cooked inside dough: dumplings in Asia; samosas in India; empanadas in Spain and Latin America; ravioli and calzones in Italy; shawarma in the Middle East; and on and on and on.

Any aliens viewing Planet Earth in hiding have almost certainly noted a strong pattern:

Australia participates in the universal human need to wrap meat and veggies in dough and cook them. Its meat pie is easily one of the country’s most popular dishes—maybe even its “national” dish.

Humans have been making pies for at least six thousand thousand years — naturally, there are even pictures of pies on the walls of Egyptian tombs. And the first pies were almost certainly meat ones.

For the first few thousand years, pie dough was probably just something to hold the meat while it cooked and wasn’t eaten. But then, around 1304 to 1237 B.C. — and it astounds me that they can tell this just from drawings on tomb walls — the chefs to the Egyptian pharaohs began adding honey and nuts to the dough, making that part of the meal, too.

Later, meat pies spread to Greece and Rome, and later still to Europe and England, where the dough was definitely eaten — but possibly only by the staff of the manor while the lords and ladies of the house ate the meat inside.

Meat pies are, of course, still very popular in the U.K. and Canada. They’ve traditionally been made with, well, meat — usually chopped or minced beef, lamb, chicken, or pork. Often, they’re eaten with sauces — ketchup, garlic aioli, or various curries.

They’re different from American pot pies that tend to be bigger and have more vegetables and gravy. They’re also lighter on the stomach.

Meat pies came to Australia with — who else? — the convicts in the 18th century, where meat pies were probably part of their rations.

“Australians just love a good meat pie,” says Daniel Roberts, the owner of Oliver’s Pies in Avalon Beach, Australia. “They’ll even smash down an average one and then maybe complain about it later. They’re just so easy and convenient.”

Australia’s meat pies are similar to the ones in the U.K. and Canada with one key difference: they need to be small enough to hold in your hand, which is why they’re often called “pocket pies” or “hand-warmers.” Meat pies can easily be eaten without utensils — unlike American pot pies, which are eaten with a fork and knife.

“You have to be able to hold it in your hand,” Roberts says. “It can’t end up on your lap — not too much gravy.”

Left: Daniel Roberts poses in front of Oliver's Pies in Avalon Beach. Right: Meat pies being prepared in the restaurant's kitchen.
Daniel Roberts, left, and some soon-to-be pies.

Michael — who lived in Australia previously — was excited to be back in the land of the meat pies of his youth.

And, sure enough, he immediately found himself in meat pie heaven.

“A meat pie is a hearty food,” he says. “Each bite is rich and savory, with hints of spices like rosemary, thyme, and sage, but the heartiness is offset a bit with the flakiness of the buttery crust or the potatoes, if there are any. But let’s face it: this is not a subtle dish. It’s classic comfort food.”

This is where I rain on everyone’s meat pie parade and say I didn’t quite get all the hullabaloo. The often-fatty meat was overwhelming; even Michael sometimes found the pies too greasy.

Then again, I’m the guy who recently wrote that I hated Jack in the Box’s deep-fried tacos — and was informed by plenty of readers that some people buy them non-ironically.

The truth is, I’ve never been much of a meat-eater. I tell myself it’s because it’s better for the planet, but the truth is, I’ve never really craved the stuff. My mom informed me that as a young boy, I once told her, quite indignantly, “Meat, meat, meat! All we ever have is meat!”

Prescient words.

I have a massive sweet tooth, and I love most seafood, especially mollusks of any kind. But land-animal flesh and fat is not my Kryptonite. In a way, I’m jealous of carnivores because meat seems to give them such pleasure.

Then again, I think I get the same pleasure from, say, Vietnamese fresh spring rolls. Or mushrooms.

In fact, I have another theory, one about cooking with meat vs. vegetarian cooking.

(Have you noticed that I have a lot of theories? Maybe this is because I grew up before Wikipedia, where I couldn’t just look things up. It is now a major pet peeve of mine when, in social situations, someone stops the conversation to look up the answer to some question on their phone. Can’t we all just marinate in the mystery — and the joy and focus of each other’s company?)

Anyway, here’s my theory: when cooking with meat, chefs often rely too much on the flavor and the richness of the meat itself. Vegetarian chefs can’t do this, so they must work harder, using more spices and conjuring up more interesting flavors.

The upshot is that, overall, vegetarian cooking tends to be “better” and more flavorful than food cooked with meat.

Then again, this could totally be a projection on my part.

The greater point is that I gravitated toward the vegetarian options while Michael was ordering his “meat” meat pies.

And I was soon rewarded with wonderful curried lentil concoctions; spinach-and-cheese ones made with ricotta and fontina; ones with mushrooms and leeks with sauces made of wine and garlic; a spicy four-bean chili one; one made with roasted pumpkin and sage; and another bean one, deemed “Mexican,” with a layer of spicy beans, a layer of guacamole, and a third layer of sour cream — all cooked inside the crust!

Why does anyone order their meat pies with something as boring as plain old meat?

Side note: is a meat pie that doesn’t include meat still a “meat pie”? Don’t be so literal! Of course, it is.

Also, I wish our resident photographer, Michael, had been taking pictures of all these great vegetarian meat pies, but that ship has sailed. This is the only photo he took of any of my meals:

A baked spicy broccoli, cauliflower, and okra "meat" pie.
One of my vegetarian meat pies — a spicy broccoli, cauliflower, and okra one, I think.

There’s definitely a revolution going on in the world of Australia’s meat pies — vegetarian and otherwise. It’s informed by the country’s increased immigration and cultural diversity, a growing awareness of health and epicureanism in general, and, yeah, probably Instagram and social media.

“Everything’s getting more and more fancy!” Roberts admits. “There are now hundreds of different versions of meat pies.”

But I think this is a great thing. After all, meat pies are at least six thousand years old, and they’ve been evolving all that time.

They’re now becoming something even better still.

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