Tilapia Stew: Egyptian Recipe Found in 6000-year-old Stomach
This recipe is based on an archaeological discovery made in an upper Egypt tomb dating to around 3500 to 4000 BC. Differing from a typical mummy, which would have had its organs in canopic jars, the mummified remains of a man were found with his digestive system intact. Luckily for the researchers, they could even see what his last meal was: a simple soup of barley, green onions, and tilapia.
Tilapia was such a feature of life that it even had its own hieroglyph, as can be seen just above the head of the central figure in this image from the Tomb of Nakht. ( Public domain )
Nile Tilapia: An Ancient Egyptian Food Staple Associated with Rebirth
The Nile tilapia was a food staple and cultural icon thousands of years ago for the ancient Egyptians. The fish they caught in nets or speared in the Nile River appeared in their art and religion as well as on their plates, making it one of the first fish species to have been cultured. Much like in the tilapia farms around the world today, they also raised tilapia in enclosed ponds for easier access.
Tilapia was such a feature of life that it even had its own hieroglyph. Egyptian tombs present the fish in ponds and it was also a popular shape for ancient Egyptian bottles and makeup palettes. People believed that the fish was a guide for the solar boat of the sun-god Ra, as it sailed across the sky to warn of the approach of the Apophis serpent in the netherworld voyage. The tilapia fish was also associated with rebirth and renewal, so its likeness was sometimes sewn into death shrouds.
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Moreover, the tilapia was linked to Hathor, the goddess of love and women and a symbol of fertility. People would wear amulets depicting the tilapia fish to try to increase their own fertility. This unusual association may be explained by a strange aspect of tilapia behavior. Baby fish swim into the mother’s mouth for protection soon after hatching or when danger nears. After their concern passes, the little one’s emerge. This quirk of nature may have been misinterpreted by ancient Egyptians as a miraculous rebirth phenomenon or as an unusual birth practice.
Stela from the Egyptian New Kingdom showing person drinking beer. (Vassil / CC0)
Barley and Beer in Ancient Egyptian Cuisine
Barley, the other main ingredient in this recipe, was a key crop for the ancient Egyptians, and one of the first cultivated grains in the world. In Ancient Egypt it was eaten as a grain in and of itself, and also used to make bread and beer. Barley was a staple in ancient Egyptian diets, and many believed their diet was complete if they consumed barley bread and beer. Ancient Egyptians were one of first civilization to brew beer, and it was consumed by all levels of society.
Nile tilapia found in the Nile is darker than the farmed tilapia people eat today. ( Tinnakorn / Adobe Stock)
What’s Different Today? Updating Classic Cuisine
The ancient Egyptians wouldn’t recognize the tilapia most people eat today as the same fish they favored so long ago, and in some ways, they’d be right. It’s not the same fish. Farmed tilapia, the most accessible version of the fish found around the world, is selectively bred to be white. The wild tilapia found near to and in the Nile was the dark type.
There is also a difference between the following recipe with the traditional Egyptian cuisine such as the last meal consumed by the mummy mentioned above. An authentic ancient Egyptian barley and tilapia stew would be cooked using the whole: fish bones, fins, scales and all. By using tilapia fillets instead, this version is more accessible, and possibly more palatable, for the modern cook adapting an ancient recipe to their own dinner table.
The FULL RECIPE to make your own Tilapia and Barley Stew is available, HERE, in the March, 2019 AO Magazine Issue.
Top image: Egyptians prepare fish, perhaps a delicious tilapia stew! Source: Pubic Domain