The cuisine of ancient Egypt covers over three thousand years but still retained many consistent traits until well into Greco-Roman times. The staples of both poor and wealthy Egyptians were bread and beer, often accompanied by green-shooted onions, other vegetables, and to a lesser extent, meat, game and fish. Ancient Egyptian food is surprisingly diverse, considering the arid landscape from which it came.
Meals in the Cuisine of Ancient Egypt
Depictions of banquets can be found in paintings from both the Old Kingdom and the New Kingdom. They usually started sometime in the afternoon. Men and women were separated unless they were married. Seating varied according to social status, with those of the highest level sitting on chairs, those slightly lower sitting on stools, and those lowest in rank sitting on the bare floor. Basins were provided with aromatics before the food was served. Furthermore, flower-scented fat was burned to spread pleasant smells or repel insects, depending on the type.
Lily flowers and flower collars were handed out. Also, professional dancers (primarily women) entertained, accompanied by musicians playing the harps, lutes, drums, tambourines, and clappers. There were usually considerable amounts of alcohol and abundant foods; whole roast oxen, ducks, geese, pigeons, and fish. The dishes frequently consisted of stews served with significant portions of bread, fresh vegetables and fruit. For sweets, there were cakes baked with dates and sweetened with honey. The goddess Hathor was often invoked during feasts.
Ancient Egyptian food could be prepared by stewing, baking, broiling, grilling, frying, or roasting. Spices and herbs were added for flavour, though the former were expensive imports and therefore confined to the tables of the wealthy. Food mainly was preserved by salting, and dates and raisins could be dried for long-term storage. The staples, bread and beer, were usually prepared in the exact locations. The yeast was used for bread; therefore, ancients also utilised it for brewing. The two were prepared either in unique bakeries or, more often, at home, and any surplus would be sold.
There was honey collected from the wild and honey from domesticated bees kept in pottery hives. Honey was the primary sweetener, though it was rather expensive. A cheaper alternative would have been dates or carob. Even a hieroglyph (nedjem/bener) depicted a carob pod.
That bore the primary meaning of “sweet; pleasant.” Oils would be made from lettuce or radish seed, safflower, ben, balanitis and sesame. Egyptians employed animal fat for cooking. Also, jars were used for storing. It has been found in many settlements.
Bread in Ancient Egyptian Cuisine
Egyptian bread was made almost exclusively from emmer wheat, which was more challenging to turn into flour than most other wheat varieties. The chaff does not come off through threshing but comes in spikelets that need to be removed by moistening and pounding with a pestle to avoid crushing the grains inside. It was then dried in the sun, winnowed and sieved and finally milled on a saddle quern, which functioned by moving the grindstone back and forth rather than with a rotating motion.
The baking techniques varied over time. In the Old Kingdom, heavy pottery moulds were filled with dough and then set in the embers to bake. During the Middle Kingdom, tall cones were used on square hearths. In the New Kingdom, a new type of a large open-topped clay oven, cylindrical in shape, was used, encased in thick mud bricks and mortar.
The dough was then slapped on the heated inner wall and peeled off when done. It is similar to how a tandoor oven is used for flatbreads. Tombs from the New Kingdom show images of bread in many different shapes and sizes. Loaves are shaped like human figures, fish, animals, and fans, with varying dough textures. Flavourings used for bread included coriander seeds and dates, but the poor did not know if this was ever used.
Other than emmer, barley was grown to make bread and used for making beer, and so were lily seeds and roots and tiger nut. The grit from the quern stones used to grind the flour mixed in with bread was a primary source of tooth decay due to its wear on the enamel. There was also fine dessert bread and cakes baked from high-grade flour for those who could afford it.
In ancient Egyptian cuisine, beer was a primary source of nutrition and was consumed daily. Beer was such an essential part of the Egyptian diet that it was even used as currency. Like most modern African beers, but unlike European beer, it was very cloudy with plenty of solids and highly nutritious, quite reminiscent of gruel. It was an essential source of protein, minerals, and vitamins and was so valuable that beer jars were often used to measure value and used in medicine. Little knowledge counts about specific types of beer, but there is mention of, for example, sweet beer but without any specific details mentioned.
Globular-based vessels with a narrow neck used to store fermented beer from pre-dynastic times have been found at Hierakonpolis and Abydos, with emmer wheat residue showing signs of gentle heating from below. Though not conclusive evidence of early beer brewing, it is an indication that this might have been what they were used. Archaeological evidence shows that ancient Egyptians made beer by first baking “beer bread”, a well-leavened, lightly baked bread that did not kill the yeasts, which was then crumbled over a sieve and washed with water vat then left to ferment. This “beer bread” closely resembles the Bouza still consumed in Egypt today. There are claims of dates or malts used, but the evidence is not concrete.
Microscopy of beer residue points to a different method of brewing where bread was not used as an ingredient. One batch of grain was sprouted, which produced enzymes. The next batch was cooked in water, dispersing the starch and then the two batches were mixed. The enzymes began to consume the starch to produce sugar. The resulting mixture was then sieved to remove chaff, and yeast (and probably lactic acid) was added to begin a fermentation process that delivered alcohol. People still use this method of brewing in parts of non-industrialised Africa. Most beers were made of barley and only a few emmer wheats, but no evidence of flavouring has been found.
Fruit and vegetables
Ancient Egyptians ate vegetables to complement the ubiquitous beer and bread; the most common were long-shooted green scallions and garlic, but both also had medical uses. There were also lettuce, celery (eaten raw or used to flavour stews), cucumber types, and, perhaps, some Old World gourds and even melons. In Greco-Roman times there were turnips, but it is not sure if they were available before that period. Various sedges, including papyrus, were eaten raw, boiled, roasted or ground into flour and were rich in nutrients.
Tiger nut (Cyperus esculentus) was used in ancient Egyptian cuisine to make a dessert from the dried and ground tubers mixed with honey. Lily and similar flowering aquatic plants could be eaten raw or turned into flour, and both root and stem were edible. Several pulses and legumes such as peas, beans, lentils and chickpeas were vital protein sources. The excavations of the workers’ village at Giza have revealed pottery vessels imported from the Middle East, which were used to store and transport olive oil as early as the 4th Dynasty.
The most common fruit were the dates, and there were also figs, grapes (and raisins), dom palm nuts (eaten raw or steeped to make juice), certain species of Mimusops, and nabk berries (jujube or other members of the genus Ziziphus). Figs were so common because they were high in sugar and protein. The dates would either be dried/dehydrated or eaten fresh. Dates were sometimes even used to ferment wine, and the poor would use them as sweeteners. Unlike vegetables, which were grown year-round, the fruit was more seasonal. Pomegranates and grapes would be brought into the tombs of the deceased.
Meat, fowl and fish in Ancient Egyptian Cuisine
The meat came from domesticated animals, game and poultry. The most important animals in ancient Egyptian cuisine were cattle, sheep, goats and pigs. This animal was previously thought to have been taboo to eat because the priests of Egypt referred pigs to the evil god Seth. It possibly included partridge, quail, pigeon, ducks and geese. The chicken most likely arrived around the 5th to 4th century BC, though archaeologists found no chicken bones before the Greco-Roman period.
5th-century BC, the Greek historian Herodotus claimed that the Egyptians abstained from consuming cows as they were sacred by association with Isis. They sacrificed male oxen but did not eat them and buried them ritually. However, excavations at the Giza worker’s village have uncovered evidence of the massive slaughter of oxen, mutton, and pork. Researchers estimate that the workforce building the Great Pyramid was fed beef every day.
Poultry, both wild and domestic and fish were available to all but the neediest. Mutton and pork were more common, despite Herodotus’ affirmations that swine were held by the Egyptians to be unclean and avoided. Instead, the alternative protein sources would have been legumes, eggs, cheese, and the amino acids available in the tandem staples of bread and beer. Ancient Egyptians also ate Mice and hedgehogs, and a common way to cook the latter was to encase a hedgehog in clay and bake it. When the clay was cracked open and removed, it took the prickly spikes.
The ancient Egyptians invented Foie gras in their cuisine; a well-known delicacy still enjoyed today. The technique of gavage, cramming food into the mouth of domesticated ducks and geese, dates as far back as 2500 BC, when the Egyptians began keeping birds for food.
A 14th-century book translated and published in 2017 lists ten recipes for sparrow eaten for its aphrodisiac properties.