What Egyptians Ate: Did the Cuisine of Ancient Egypt Reflect the Tastes of Today?
The ancient Egyptians enjoyed a variety of foods, not unlike what we enjoy today. Nevertheless, compared to many other ancient civilizations, the ancient Egyptians had access to better foods. The Nile River provided irrigation for crops and water for livestock. Generally speaking, bread and beer were the staples of ancient Egyptian cuisine. Fruits, vegetables, and fish were commonly eaten by the poor, while meat and poultry were more often eaten by the rich.
Beer & Bread – The Diet Staples
Bread and beer were the two staple products of ancient Egyptian cuisine. Bread was eaten by both the rich and the poor and was made using wheat or barley. Bread was made on a daily basis and was an arduous task. The grains were first grounded into flour, a job usually carried out by women. In order to speed up the grinding process, sand would be added into the grinding mill along with the grains. Although this allowed the flour to be produced faster, it also meant that the bread would have sand in it. This is evident in the teeth of mummies, which have been found to be worn down to the pulp as a result of biting on the sand in their food throughout their lifetime. By mixing the flour with water and yeast, dough would be formed, which would then be placed in a clay mold before being cooked in a stone oven.
Ancient Egyptian workers plowing the fields, harvesting the crops, and threshing the grain. (Norman de Garis Davies / Public Domain)
To make beer, a special type of bread, referred to as ‘beer bread’ by archaeologists, was used. This bread contained a higher amount of yeast than other breads and was baked at a temperature that did not kill the yeast culture. The ‘beer bread’ would be crumbled into vats, and left to ferment naturally in water, thus producing beer. The beer of the ancient Egyptians was a thick and frothy drink that was highly nutritious. This drink was consumed not so much for pleasure, but rather out of necessity, as water from the Nile was not already clean and safe enough for people to drink.
Egyptian wooden model of beer making in ancient Egypt (E. Michael Smith Chiefio / CC BY-SA 3.0)
How did the Nile Contribute to Agriculture?
Although the Nile may not have been a source of drinking water for the ancient Egyptians, it made the land fertile due to its annual flooding. This allowed a variety of crops to be planted, which in turn were part of the ancient Egyptian diet. Apart from grains mentioned previously, the ancient Egyptians also planted many types of vegetables, the most popular of which included onion, garlic, leek, lentils, lettuce, radish, and turnip. In addition, the ancient Egyptians consumed such fruits as fig, date, apple, and pomegranate. Vegetables were eaten as complements to the bread and beer, while fruits would have been part of dessert.
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Against the barren desert of northeastern Africa, the fertile valley of the Nile River runs northward through Egypt. (Jacques Descloitres / Public Domain)
Fish from the Nile was a source of protein available for the ancient Egyptians, and these were often salted or dried so as to preserve them for long periods of time. Another source of protein was poultry, such as goose, duck, pigeon, and quail. Poultry was also available to the poor as they could hunt it in the wild. Nevertheless, it was still considered to be a luxury food and was not regularly consumed. Pork and mutton were also consumed by the ancient Egyptians, though they were more expensive, and hence could only be afforded by the wealthier members of society. Beef was even more expensive and was eaten by commoners only for celebratory or ritual meals, though more regularly by royalty.
Luxor Egypt Hyerogliphs close up showing ancient food preparation. (Andrea Izzotti / Adobe)
Ancient Food Preparation – What do we know?
Finally, it may be pointed out that little is known about the way the ancient Egyptians prepared their food, as no recipes have survived. Nevertheless, based on the utensils found in tombs, as well as depictions of the food preparation process, we are able to say that their food was baked, boiled, stewed, fried, grilled, or roasted. Moreover, in order to enhance the flavor of their food, the ancient Egyptians used condiments such as cumin, coriander, and cinnamon during the cooking process. As for sweetening their dishes, honey, as well as syrups made from dates, grapes, and figs were used.
Top image: Ancient Egyptian preparing food. Source: (Elnur / Adobe)
By Wu Mingren
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