All we know of the Ancient Egyptian diet is derived from the offerings depicted on the walls of tombs and temples – and, indeed, in some rare cases, found as remains. Pharaohs were well catered for as they passed into the afterlife; none would go hungry after death. Because the foods depicted were a guide for the servants of the afterlife, there are few recipes to be found; ingredients and methods for preparation would have been shared in the oral tradition.
We know that the Egyptians were keen on fruit and vegetables: grapes, figs, dates, pomegranates, melons, papayas, onions, garlic, celery, cucumbers, turnips, leeks. They also ate fruits from the persea tree, now extinct. According to the Greek botanist Dioscorides, it was not only nutritious but medicinal:
It bears edible fruit, it is good for the stomach… The dried leaves when sprinkled as a fine powder are able to stop haemorrhage.
But he warns too that ‘on it are found the venomous spiders called kranokolaptes, especially in Thebes’.
Lentils, peas and beans were a staple in the diet, as was bread, the origin of the flatbread still enjoyed today. Sweet treats included honey cake and fruit loaf – fruit loves with berries were found in the tomb of Tutankhamun.
With the Nile being the source of life in Egypt, it is no surprise that fish formed a big part of the cuisine. So did meat and poultry like ducks, geese (the Egyptians invented foie gras), partridge, heron, crane, pigeon, sparrows – even hedgehogs and rodents. There has been some contention over whether the Egyptians ate beef and pork: Isis, the mother goddess, was sometimes depicted as a cow, so to eat beef may have been sacrilegious, and pigs had been associated with Seth, god of chaos, violence and storms – presumably an unpleasant meal. But archaeologists have found evidence of these meats being eaten by workers, such as those who build the Great Pyramid.
The drink of choice for most was beer; not the thin liquid we have today but thicker, like gruel, and not as alcoholic. The Greek writer Herodotus described beer as ‘wine made out of cereal’. It was drunk because it was safer than the waters of the Nile. Wine, made from grapes, was reserved for the rich.
Parties were popular among the elite, and they feasted at banquets while watching musicians and singers and dancers. The poorer people came together to break bread too, often as part of wakes for the dead, and during the Beautiful Festival of the Dead where people remembered relatives who had passed on and took offerings to their tombs.
If you would like to learn more about how the Egyptians ate, and perhaps try some recipes for yourself inspired by these ancient people, take a look at The Pharaoh’s Kitchen: Recipes from Ancient Egypt’s Enduring Food Traditions.
From the blurb:
Beautifully illustrated with scenes from tomb reliefs, objects and artifacts in museum exhibits, and modern photographs, the recipes are accompanied by explanatory material that describes the ancient home and kitchen, cooking vessels and methods, table manners and etiquette, banquets, beverages, and ingredients. Traditional feasts and religious occasions with their own culinary traditions are described, including some that are still celebrated today.
And here, you can find a recipe for delicious Tiger Nut Cones which originates from a tomb painting dating back to the 15th century BC. If you struggle to source tiger nuts, you can try this adapted recipe.
Acknowledgment: With thanks to Middle Eastern Eye for information on this topic.
Photo credit: inigolai-Photography/Shutterstock.com.