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Food in Ancient Egypt
By: Salil Malkan

| Bread | Beverages | Meat | Vegetables | Fruits | Oils and Dairy | Spices |

    The Ancient land of Egypt was one of the most fertile valleys in the world and supported one of the world’s greatest civilizations. Rich soil, provided by the river’s annual flooding, deposited thick soil over the land providing sometimes two, or even three, harvests a year. The Nile floods every year and the Egyptians believed it was because a god would open the gates once a year and let the water flow. Egyptian food was cooked in simple clay pots, using wooden utensils and stored in jars.


Egyptians Making Bread     Bread was the staple diet of most Egyptians. For the common people of Egypt, cereal foods formed the main backbone of their diet from the old kingdom onward. Even for the rich, their meals generally consisted of a variety of different breads, sometimes with other ingredients mixed in. As the years progressed bread changed. In the old kingdom it may have been flat and plain. Later on in the new kingdom more ingredients were added and the recipes were made more complex. The bread was cooked into long round rolls. All bread was often sweetened with honey or dates. Sometimes the breads were made with a filling while other times there would be a spread or jam on them. Bread was made by mixing the dough, kneading it with both hands or sometimes with feet in large containers. Yeast, salt, spices, milk, butter, and eggs were then added, and then the bread was placed in a baking form or patted into various shapes. At first it was cooked in open fires or embers. Later on the dough was placed in bread molds and wiped with grease and fat before being cooked. Slowly this process became more sophisticated.


    Meals were often served with beer, or wine. Beer, known as hqt to the Egyptians, was the national drink and was made from barley. To improve the taste the Egyptians would add spices and it was usually stored in labeled clay jars. Everyone drank beer in Egypt even children. It was the staple drink of the poor (wages were sometimes paid in beer), it was a drink of the rich and wealthy, and a drink offered to the gods and placed in the tombs of the dead. Wine for the upper classes was made from local vineyards. Wine, known as yrp in Egypt, was made from a variety of fruits including grapes, pomegranates, and dates. In ancient party scenes on the tomb walls, wine is seen offered to the guests. It seems that a lot of wine was consumed at the banquets, because there are a number of images showing the guests throwing up or being carried home because of their drunken state, drunkenness was seen as an amusement to the ancient Egyptians! There is still a lot of guesswork about where the wine grape first originated. Some think it started south of the Caucasus and south of the Caspian Sea; others believe in Egypt and traveled into the Middle East. Milk was considered a delicacy by many. The Egyptians kept cattle, goats and sheep. Their milk was kept in egg-shaped jars, plugged with grass as protection against insects. It was either drunk or processed into quark or yogurt like labaneh. Water along the Nile was never in short supply although its quality was poor. In many places wells were dug so that water could be drawn. Even though water was abundant, it was used sparingly, because of the amount of work involved in purifying it.


Egyptians Preparing Meat     Even the poor people of Ancient Egypt ate a fairly healthy diet including vegetables, fruit and fish. It was only the larger plantations that grazed animals, mainly because the average farmer had to use his limited land to grow crops. Poultry was mostly roasted for the table, but meat was mainly eaten by the rich. However when available the poor did eat duck, pork, turtle, crane, geese, fish, and quails. The rich ate beef, sheep, goat, antelope, fish, ibex, gazelles, pork, and deer. Most edible fish from the Nile were consumed, though some fish, such as the Lepidotus and Phragus and a few others were forbidden because of their connection with the myth of Osiris. All meats and fish would have been salted, brined, dried, smoked, roasted, or boiled.


    Egyptians ate a large variety of vegetables in addition to these meats; some of the vegetables they ate were beans, radish, coriander, cabbage, beets, turnips, cucumber, raphanus, chick peas, lentils, green peas, lettuce, papyrus root, and lotus. Leeks and Egyptian lettuce was also popular. Egyptians ate boiled cabbage before all the rest of the food considering it one of the most delicate vegetables. Lettuce was dedicated to the god Min, and was often protected by a little statue of the god. The poor ate the roots of papyrus and other plants gathered in the marshes. Garlic was eaten, as well as thought to repel agents of diseases. Onions were a popular vegetable, as well as being used for medical purposes.


    Chances are that we do not know all the fruits that the Egyptians ate. The most popular and widely consumed were probably dates which are rich in proteins and sugar. While the rich used honey as a sweetener, the poor more often used dates. They were also dried for later use, and were sometimes fermented to make wine. We know that figs were eaten from paintings and cave art; grapes were popular when available and were also sun-dried to make raisins. Olives, apples, and pomegranate were introduced in Egypt, during the Second Illness, by the Hyksos who breifly conquered and controlled Egypt. Walnuts and carob pods are known to be eaten only from the new kingdom onward. Other fruits known to be eaten in Ancient Egypt are coconuts, which were eaten by the rich, and leeks. Some of these fruit were only eaten fresh, but many were dried in order to preserve them.

Oils and Dairy Products

Milking Cows     While it is not proven records we do believe that the Ancient Egyptians were familiar with all dairy products. We do find a number of paintings showing men carrying what appear to be pots of milk or cream. There were a number of different oils and fat used in the preparation of food. Oils were also pressed from olives, almonds, sesame, linseed, selgam, and seemga.

Seasonings and Spices

    Sea salt, because of its connection to the evil Seth, was not consumed but salt was available. Pepper only appears from the Greek period onward, but other spices were also used, including aniseed, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, dill, fennel, fenugreek, marjoram, mustard and thyme. Sugar does not appear in the Egyptian diet until late in history, honey was used by the rich for a sweetener, but was probably too expensive for the poor. The common person more likely used dates.

    Without doubt, because of Egypt's rich soil and lush vegetation, the rich of Egypt probably always ate well, even during times of draught. In the worst of times, common people probably suffered to some extent, but mostly they were probably fed well, though not as much as the rich. Although the Egyptians ate well they did not over eat. Egyptians over all were very fit and healthy in their diets.

All Pictures and Information from:
Life of the Ancient Egyptians - Strouhal, Eugen - 1992 - University of Oklahoma Press