The ancient Egyptians certainly did not have access to the vast array of foods we enjoy today. However, among ancient civilizations, Egypt had one of the most diverse and plentiful food supplies. Egypt was, in fact, often called “the breadbasket of the world.” Much of this dietary richness was made possible by the Nile River. There was enough surplus for nobles to enjoy elaborate banquets, such as those associated with funerals.
The two staples of the Egyptian diet were bread and beer. a mural in the tomb of Ramses III shows almost fifty different kinds of bread being made, with varying shapes, ingredients, and flavors.
And, yes, beer, in ancient times, was consumed for nourishment as much as for the alcohol. It is no coincidence that both of these mainstays of the Egyptian diet were based on grains, such as barley and emmer wheat. It is difficult to know which of these grains were the most important since both were simply called “grain” or “seeds.” In the Bible, when Jacob told his sons, “I have heard there is corn in Egypt,” he could have been referring to either grain (Genesis 42:2). See Why do We Call Maize Corn?
In Egypt, even wages were paid in grains, and the large amount of land available for cultivation of grains allowed Egypt to export large quantities. In the later periods, Rome depended on Egypt for most of its grain.
Beer was actually made from barley dough, linking the making of bread with the making of beer. In fact, the two are often shown together in Egyptian documents or art.
The rich and poor alike would have consumed lots of beer and bread. However, ancient Egyptians ate many other foods, including a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and meats.
List of Ancient Egyptian Foods
Some Egyptian foods were:
- grapes (and raisins)
- apples (these would have been what we call “crab apples” today)
Of course, what foods and Egyptian had access to depended on their wealth.
Palm trees also provided both materials for food and for weaving. Beef was also sometimes available, and there is pictorial evidence, such as in the image below, to support this. the Egyptians used milk to make cheeses and yogurts. The Egyptians used oils such as olive oil, sesame oil, and safflower oil. Salt was used for seasoning, as well as spices like cinnamon.
Pigs in Ancient Egypt
Although early sources claimed that Egyptians shared Hebrew prohibitions against consuming pig flesh, pig only became taboo gradually, and pork was consumed in early Egypt. Whether pork became taboo in Egypt because of knowledge of disease, and the habits of swine, or for more economic reasons, is unclear.
Wild Birds and Chickens
The Nile was home to many varieties of fish that the Egyptians could eat, and the surrounding marshlands were home to many fowl, such as partridges, quails, pigeons, ducks, geese, doves, herons, and storks, all of which were used as food. Eggs as well were used.
Chickens were not known in the earliest times, but were introduced to Egypt probably in the 4th century, B.C.E.
We owe much of out knowledge of the Egyptian diet to the practice of leaving a funerary meal with the bodies of the deceased. Egyptian wall paintings and reliefs often depict food and food preparation, and tomb paintings are a particular source of such depiction, as scenes of food production and preparation were left to ensure the deceased had a plentiful food supply in the afterlife, in addition to the “last meal” of actual food left with the body. One such meal included
- barley porridge or “gruel”
- a cooked quail
- cooked kidneys
- pigeon stew
- cooked fish
- ox haunches
- beef ribs
- small loaves of bread
- small cakes
- stewed fruits (perhaps figs)
- fresh Nabk berries
- pies made with honey
- possible jar of cheese or cheese-like substance
This lavish meal was found by Walter Bryan Emery, a British Egyptologist. Known as tomb 3477, it was the burial place of a Second Dynasty noblewoman at Saqqara. This particular meal was fairly elaborate, as funerary meals go, but another tomb, the First Dynasty Tomb 3111 was found to contain ox skeletons and the remains of cuts of meat. Some burial chambers also contained circular grain storage structures.
Ancient Egyptian Recipes
You may come across websites which claim to have ancient Egyptian recipes. Do we have archaeological or written examples of ancient Egyptian recipes? In other words, is there a such thing as an ancient Egyptian cookbook? No. The written evidence that does survive comes from after the Hellenic period, after the time of Alexander the Great. This is not exactly what we mean by “Ancient Egypt.” There are no detailed cooking instructions of the type that could be called a “recipe.”
Banqueting scenes and other evidence, together with actual chemical evidence from foods left behind in burial chambers, and knowledge of some of the technology available, does give archaeologists some idea of how the Egyptians processed grain and made bread, as well as how they may have cooked other dishes.
Egyptian Funerary Meals
As well, we have a fairly good idea of how beer was made, and it was probably quite similar to the bouza that is still made in present-day Egypt by Nubians.
However, any recipes that claim to be ancient Egyptian are based hypothesis and a good “educated guess” rather than direct knowledge of how Egyptians cooked food. Although the recipes may be a fairly good approximation of some of the culinary techniques of ancient Egypt, whether the results taste anything like the real foods the Egyptians ate is impossible to know.
Some of the recipes found on the web are based on modern surviving cooking techniques of the region. Others might be based on some of the speculations of Egyptologists or Archaeologists of the 1800’s, many of which are a stretch, to say the least. For example, it was often claimed that Egyptians used bitter herbs to flavor their beer, similar to how we use hops today. Yet, the scant evidence used to support this assertion is circumstantial, at best.