Introduction to the Ancient Egyptian Diet
Interestingly enough, the world’s oldest-known payslip – a 5,000-year-old cuneiform tablet from Mesopotamia, depicts how workers were ‘paid’ in beer rather than money. And coming to ancient Egypt, from the near-contemporary period, we also know of Egyptian workers being paid in rations of beer during the grand construction project of the Great Pyramid of Giza (circa 2560 BC).
Now of course, beyond just beer, much of the populace of ancient Egypt was fostered by the Nile river. This translated to the annual flooding of the river (from June), which resulted in the yearly deposit of the nutrient-rich black fertile soil covering much of the delta (as shown in the image above). Consequently, most ancient Egyptians were uniquely blessed with an abundance of crops, vegetables, and fauna – which, in turn, led to a vibrant cuisine and diet reflective of the fertility of the Nile valley.
To that end, in this article, we will aim to cover the wide array of ancient Egyptian food items, ranging from common vegetables to exquisite wild game. And historically, researchers have been able to form credible notions/hypotheses about ancient Egyptian cuisine via the depictions of numerous food items on tomb paintings and even archaeological findings inside tombs and temples.
The Staple Food of Ancient Egyptians
The most common food item pairing in ancient Egypt comprised bread and beer. Now unsurprisingly, bread, one of the world’s oldest food items, was a staple for both rich and poor due to the ubiquity of grain production. In fact, Egypt was known for its surplus grains that were even imported into the neighboring realms.
In that regard, the main grain cultivated crops were emmer wheat and barley. Now it should be noted that in spite of the apparent simplicity of bread, making it, especially in high amounts, was often a difficult task – mostly due to the hardy nature of the emmer wheat that was not conducive to being grounded by a grinding mill.
As a solution, sand was added to the grinder to speed up the grinding process. One hypothesis states that due to the high content of sand (grit) in bread, some ancient Egyptian mummies tend to show signs of tooth decay. In any case, the resultant flour, mixed with yeast and water, was then baked in large stone ovens for mass consumption. Some bread loaves were even shaped in specific molds like human figures, gazelles, flowers, and obelisks – to be used as offerings to the temple.
As for beer, the stuff was usually made from both baked emmer and barley (resulting in ‘beer bread’) that were crumbled and soaked in water and then fermented inside large vats. In fact, we can ascertain from ancient logbooks that around 4 liters of beer were assigned daily to individual laborers working on the Great Pyramid – which suggests its popularity as a common drink.
However, it should be noted that beer, in the ancient world, was consumed as gruel or porridge, as opposed to a light drink. So it formed an important part of the daily quota of nutrition (with minerals and vitamins) for ancient Egyptians. Some of the later ancient Egyptian beer varieties possibly even involved the use of dates as an ‘exotic’ ingredient.
Vegetables, Poultry, and Fish
Now beyond bread and beer, the ancient Egyptians did consume their fair share of fresh vegetables (and wild vegetables), including scallions, onions, leeks, lettuces, cucumbers, radishes, cabbages, turnips, melons, and even papyrus stalks. And given the rarity of spices (discussed later) in common Egyptian households, stews were often infused with celery to bring out the flavors. And by virtue of its medicinal properties, researchers have pointed out how ancient Egyptians loved garlic.
As for their protein needs, the ancient Egyptians were known to eat peas, beans, lentils, and chickpeas. Some of these were possibly even eaten raw, especially in the southern part of Egypt (‘Upper Egypt’). But the main forms of food preparation usually entailed boiling, stewing, roasting, and baking.
Interestingly, meat, especially red meat (a luxury item), was not a regular fare for most of the ordinary and poorer folks. Instead, they might have relied on hunting or raising poultry – like ducks, geese, quails, purple gallinule, European coot, and even doves, pelicans, and ostriches. Unsurprisingly, eggs from many of the poultry were also eaten quite regularly.
And lastly, while available in relative abundance, fish and its consumption in ancient Egypt is sometimes debated in academic circles. A theory suggests how some of the fish species were possibly considered sacred and thus prohibited from being eaten. For example, the mythical creature Anet, represented by a red tilapia fish, may have been revered.
On the other hand, golden tilapia may have been an essential ingredient for holistic medicinal recipes. There are also motifs that showcase scenes of fishing through netting and spearing. This suggests how fish might have been a substitution for meat for some poorer sections of society.
In some cases, fish curing was perceived as an important activity – so much so that only temple officials were allowed to dry and salt fish. Pertaining to the latter, it should be noted that the preservation of food by salting was a very costly affair given the rarity of salt (which made it one of the most expensive items of the ancient world).
The Food of the Nobility
Unlike the commoners, the nobility and royalty were known to indulge in meat dishes with greater frequency. To that end, goats and sheep were eaten. And so was pork, as could be discerned from archaeological evidence of tapeworms inside mummies.
That brings us to beef, which was probably considered a high-status delicacy reserved for special occasions like funerary banquets and festivals. The ancient Egyptians might have even recognized around thirty cuts of beef, with the foreleg perceived as the choicest cut, usually reserved for the departed inside the tombs. Beef rations were possibly also doled out to the laborers working for the construction of the Great Pyramid during the Old Kingdom period (circa 2700 – 2200 BC).
In addition, the Pharaohs and their noble retinues were known for their penchant for hunting. The game included animals like wild gazelles, cranes, hippos, and even hedgehogs. Pertaining to the latter, hedgehogs were entirely baked in clay. So when the cooking was done, the encasing of the clay was cracked open, which allowed the prickly spikes to come off (with the clay).
And like the commoners, the elite also partook in the more readily available poultry meat. And interestingly, the ancient Egyptians invented flavorful foie gras. To that end, the controversial technique of gavage, which entails forcibly cramming food into the mouths of geese and ducks, dates from circa 2500 BC. The evidence of such practices can be discerned from a burial chamber bas-relief in the Saqqara necropolis that depicts workers force-feeding poultry animals with food pellets.
Talking of flavorful food, the ancient Egyptians, especially the richer sections of the society, were known to have used herbs and imported spices, like dill, coriander seeds, mustard, thyme, marjoram, and cinnamon. Some special dishes were also flavored or fried with animal fat that was resourcefully stored inside glass jars. Furthermore, oils derived from radish seeds, safflower, and sesame were employed in cooking.
Lastly, affluent families had access to their fair share of good quality dairy products, like butter and cheese. For example, the tomb of Ptahmes (a mayor of Memphis), dating from the 13th century BC, revealed the world’s oldest known solid cheese specimen – found inside a fabric-covered jar. Milk was possibly sourced from cows, goats, and even donkeys – as prescribed for medicinal purposes.
The Dessert and Wine Table
Unlike the year-round availability of fresh vegetables, fruits were more seasonal in nature – thus making them more exclusive. Therefore, what we identify as the most common fruit, like grapes, figs, and dates, were mostly consumed as desserts by the privileged class of ancient Egyptians, like priests and nobles.
Interestingly, the New Kingdom tomb of Tutankhamun also revealed dates, dum-palm fruits, pomegranates, juniper berries, jujube fruits, and almonds. Some of these, like almonds and berries, were imported from foreign realms, possibly Greece. We also know of imported coconuts being consumed as tender delicacies by affluent Egyptians.
And since we brought up desserts, the cuisine of ancient Egypt did have its fair share of unique and fascinating dessert items. For example, cake, as a specific item was possibly the cultural invention of ancient Egyptians. They made this dish of unleavened fine bread from high-grade flour that was baked on a round stone and sweetened with honey – the most prized of all sweeteners.
Even more interesting is the fact that ancient Egyptians also ate actual marshmallows, i.e, the roots of the mallow plant. The root pulp was boiled with honey and thickened, then strained and cooled to be consumed as desserts and drops for sore throat. Similarly, tubers like tiger nuts were dried and mixed with honey to make sweets.
The highly expensive honey, dates, and spices were also used to ferment wine – the exclusive drink of the Egyptian elites made from grapes and pomegranates. To that end, red wine, like Shedeh, was believed to have divine qualities – possibly due to its rich red color that evoked the tint of blood. Consequently, owning vineyards was perceived as a prestigious endeavor that could only be afforded by royalty and the super-rich.
Honorable Mention – The Antibiotic Beer
Previously we talked about the popularity of beer as an integral porridge-like food in the Egyptian diet. Quite intriguingly, an analysis of bones of ancient Nubian people made in 2010 revealed the presence of tetracycline, an antibiotic that is also used in our modern times for treating bacterial infections.
The bone specimens were nearly 2,000 years old (of people who lived in the Nubian kingdom circa 350 AD), and thus the study yet again hinted at how antibiotics were (possibly) familiar to ancient populations before the discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming in 1928. And the interesting part is – the Nubians probably took in tetracycline through their special beer concoctions that were more akin to sour porridge.
From the historical perspective, the first batch of beer was possibly contaminated by streptomyces, a soil bacteria that produces tetracycline and also thrives in arid conditions such as Nubia (the land encompassing present-day northern Sudan and southern Egypt). But the Nubians over time must have noticed how the ‘accidental’ tetracycline antibiotic cured them of various bacterial ailments. So they devised their ingenious ways to propagate and brew this particular variety of beer and consumed them as a part of their diet.
It should also be noted that Streptomyces can produce a golden-colored bacterial colony on the top of the beer. This particular hue might have enticed the Nubians and Egyptians to consume more of this special ‘antibiotic’ beer (since gold was venerated by many ancient cultures). But unfortunately, as with many historical traditions of observed science, this specific art of brewing tetracycline beer was probably lost to time.