Diet of the Ancient Egyptians
Tombs of the ancient Egyptians have yielded detailed lists of foods, and tables laden with food for the afterlife. Together with surviving pictures, these have given us a good indication of what constituted their diet. While there were definitely staples, their recipes were also subject to changes in fashion. Foods were imported from other countries, and foreign dishes were popular, especially ones from Syria, Asia Minor, and Mesopotamia. Foreign slaves in Egypt also brought new foods, recipes and techniques with them. A typical peasant meal might include bread, an onion, and beer, while meals of the well-off had more variety.
An examination of mummies’ teeth, worn and pointed, gives additional clues as to diet. The pointing is from sand in the food. The wearing down is from the stone threshing floors and mortar and pestles, which left a measure of dust and pebbles in the flour. The teeth of the peasants show more wear than those of the rich, who ate bread made from finer flour. Interestingly, the teeth do not have dental caries, due to the lack of sugar in the diet.
Every spring the Nile overflowed its banks, bringing fertile soil from the mountains down to the valley. There were three seasons: akhet (the flooding season which lasted from mid-June to mid-October, thought to be the annual arrival of Hapi, the god of fertility); peret (the growing season, while lasted until the end of February); and shemu (the harvesting season which continued until mid-June).
Osiris taught the people the art of tilling the ground with a plow. Barley and wheat seeds were sown by hand, and then goats were let into the fields to walk around and bury the seeds, keeping them away from the birds. The fields were irrigated, but water was also brought in with basins. Rats were a problem, which led to the domestication and high regard of cats.
Bread was the staple of the ancient Egyptians’ diet, for peasants and rich alike. In ancient Egyptian, the word for bread was the same as the word for life. Bread was made from emmer wheat or barley. During the Middle and New Kingdoms, grain was ground with mortars and pestles. Finer flour was made by rubbing the grain between two stones. Water and salt were added to the ground flour. When making small quantities the dough was kneaded by hand. In the Old Kingdom, bread was kneaded on a stone on the ground. By the Middle Kingdom, the stone was on a table so the worker could stand. When kneading larger quantities of dough (such as in the court kitchens), it was placed in large tubs and walked on. The dough was then fashioned into flat round loaves and baked unleavened on hot stones or on the outside of the stove, where they would fall off when they were finished. The stoves used by the Egyptians were about a meter high, conical in shape, open at the top, and made from mud. Leavened bread (made with yeast) was introduced at about 1500 B.C.
During the Old Kingdom there were at least 15 types of bread; by the New Kingdom that number had risen to over 40. The bread of the rich was sweetened with the addition of honey, spices, or fruit to the dough. It was also fashioned into a variety of sizes and shapes, such as spirals. Bread for temple offerings was often covered with cumin seeds. Bread for magical and liturgical rituals was crafted into human or animal shapes.
Beef was the most popular meat, but mutton, goat, and antelope were also regularly eaten. Most of the beef was derived from long-horned wild oxen. Lamb was derived from the reddish-coated Mouflon. Oryx, gazelle and ibex were some of the more exotic meats. Blood sausage was made from sacrificed cattle, and the offal, especially the spleen and liver, was highly desired.
Poultry was the next most widely eaten meat. Ducks, wild geese, pigeons, quails, pelicans, and cranes were trapped in large numbers from the marshes of the Delta. Geese and ducks were domesticated. Geese were usually roasted over live embers on a spit. Chickens were not around until the late Roman period.
Pork and fish were taboo, for various reasons including odor and shelf-life, but were still eaten by the peasants who could not afford anything better. Part of the caution surrounding the eating of fish was that they were sacred to Seth, the god of mischief. Anyone taking part in religious rituals was not supposed to eat fish, but it was still a large industry, with permanent fishing fleets in the Delta and Fayûm. Types of fish eaten were sturgeon, mullet, tilapia, catfish, carp, barbi, and eels, and they were eaten fresh, roasted, or dried and salted.
The hearths that were used for roasting meat were low slabs of limestone. Even shepherds out in the fields and marshes carried a hearth with them.
Milk, butter and cheese were highly regarded. Cheese was made from goat, sheep or cow milk. It was placed in an animal skin and rocked until it had been churned into cheese. Milk and cheese have been found from as far back as the First Dynasty, in tombs from Abydos. Eggs were plentiful, perhaps as a by-product of the domesticated poultry industry.
Fruits and Vegetables
Common fruits eaten by the ancient Egyptians included figs, dates, palm coconuts (a luxury), grapes, persea fruit (yellow and tasting like apples), “desert dates” (fruit of the sweet-fruit tree), jujubes (cherry flavored), the fruit of the sycamore tree (which was dedicated to the cult of Hathor), and plums. Mandrake fruit, the skin of which contained narcotic toxins causing hallucinations, was used as an aphrodisiac. Carob pods were used medicinally. Apples, pomegranates, olives and peas began to be cultivated in the New Kingdom. Citrus fruits weren’t around until after the Greco-Roman period.
Onions, leeks, beans, garlic, lentils, chickpeas, radishes, spinach, turnips, carrots, lettuce, lotus bulbs, and papyrus rhizome were also part of the Egyptian diet. Lettuce was used as an offering for Min, the god of agriculture and fertility. Cucumbers, melons, pumpkins, and gourds grew along the banks of the Nile. Some vegetables were sun-dried and stored for the winter. Vegetables were made into salads and served with dressings of oil, vinegar and salt.
Salt came in two varieties: northern salt and red salt. The primary oils were sesame, linseed, oil from the ben-nuts of the bak tree, and later, olive oil. Castor oil was used for lighting and medicinal purposes. Beef, goose and pork fat were all used for frying and as condiments. Honey came in dark and light varieties, and was preserved in jars with wax-sealed tops. Other seasonings included juniper, aniseed, coriander, fennel, cumin, and poppy seeds. Pepper was not in use until much later.
Beer was the favored drink of the ancient Egyptians, and was actually probably healthier than the water. In the Old Kingdom there were four or five types of beer, among them black (the most alcoholic), red (the most common) and sweet. By the New Kingdom the imported beer from Qede was preferred. In Greek times the Egyptians drank Zythos beer.
To make beer, barley dough was baked in clay pots as if to bake bread. When it was partially baked, it was taken out and crumbled into large vats with water. Date or pomegranate juice was sometimes added for flavoring. The mixture was left to ferment, and then the liquid was drained from the dough into a pot. Beer went flat very quickly, so was drunk right away… in great quantities. A close modern-day equivalent is a beer made in Sudan called buza.
Wines were made from grapes, dates, figs, or pomegranates. Wine (like bread) was often spiced with honey, date juice, or pomegranate juice. Wine jars with clay sealings have been found from the First Dynasty. During the Old Kingdom red wines were the most popular, but by the new Kingdom, the preference had shifted to white wines. Much like today, the ancient Egyptian vineyards developed reputations, and vintages from certain ones were sought after more than others. Buto in the Delta was one such highly regarded wine. The wine was kept in cellars, with their vintages carefully recorded. Wine was also imported from Syria, Palestine, and later, Greece. Wine was consumed primarily by the upper classes – the peasants mostly stuck to the more easily made and more affordable beer.
Images from www.clipart.com.
- Cuisine and Culture, by Linda Civitello.
- The Egyptians, by Barbara Watterson.
- Everyday Life in Ancient Egypt, by Jon White.
- Food : a Culinary History from Antiquity to the Present, by Albert Sonnenfeld.
- Food, Cookery, and Dining in Ancient Times, by Alexis Soyer.
- Life in Ancient Egypt, by Adolf Erman.
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