Diet of Ancient Egyptians
The court bakery of Ramesses III
Various forms of bread, including loaves shaped like animals, are shown
From the tomb of Ramesses III in the Valley of the Kings, Twentieth Dynasty of Egypt
Doubtless, ancient Egypt’s probably eat better than many others in the ancient world. Ancient Egypt refers to its rich, dark, fertile soil and we have no doubt that since the invention of agriculture, Egyptians, with the Nile Valley and Delta had a distinct advantage over many others when it came to food. Of course, there were lean times, when the inundation of the Nile failed them, but most often, this was not the case. In fact, we find many statues and pictures of ancient Egyptians who are well overweight.
However, it is very easy to describe any process in ancient Egypt in too broad of terms. We also must keep in mind that ancient Egypt spans thousands of years, and during that period their diets varied to some extent, while new foods were also added to their menus.
Bread and cereal food
Agriculture existed from an early date in Egypt. For the common people of Egypt, cereal foods formed the main backbone of their diet from the pre-dynastic period onward even for the rich; this staple mean generally consisted of a variety of different breads, often with other ingredients mixed in.
Sometimes these ingredients were purposeful, while at other times not. Because of the crude utensils used to make bread, quartz, feldspar, mica, Ferro magnesium minerals and other foreign bodies, including germs were almost always present in the flour. bread was made by mixing the dough, kneading it with both hands or sometimes with the feet in large containers. Yeast, salt, spices, milk and sometimes butter and eggs were then added, before the bread was placed in a baking form or patted into various shapes.
At first it was cooked in open fires or even on the embers. But from the Old Kingdom on, bread-moulds were used which were preheated, wiped with fat and filled with the dough. Slowly this process became more sophisticated.
In the Middle Kingdom, tall, tapered bread ovens with a firebox at the bottom, a grating and domed, upper compartment which was open at the top were used. At first, and really for even later common consumption, bread was usually cooked in the shape of a pancake. However, later bread was made in long or round rolls, and sometimes even shaped into figures, particularly for ceremonial purposes. Large, soft griddle cakes were also made, just as in Nubia today.
Sometimes thick loaves were made, with a hollow centre that was then filled with beans, vegetables or other items. Sometimes flat bread was made with raised edges in order to hold eggs, or other fillings. Eventually, bread was made with various other ingredients, but there was no distinction between bread and pastries. Yet bread was often sweetened with honey or dates, or flavoured with sesame, aniseed or fruit.
Obviously, even for the poor, other items such as vegetables, fruit and fish were consumed, all gifts of the Nile. They often ate beans, chick peas, lentils and green peas, just as modern Egyptians do today. Leeks and Egyptian lettuce was also popular. Garlic was eaten, as well as thought to repel agents of diseases, and onions were popular, as well as being used for medical purposes. Though Herodotus tells us otherwise, radishes do not appear to have been consumed much.
Chances are we do not know all the different types of fruit consumed. The most popular fruit in ancient Egypt was probably dates, which are rich in sugar and protein. While the rich used honey as a sweetener, the poor more often employed dates. They were also dried for later consumption, and were sometimes fermented to make wine.
We know that figs were eaten, but mostly from illustrations and references. Grapes were popular when available, and were also sun-dried to make raisins. Persea Mimusops laurifolia we know from the food left in tombs, as well as pomegranates, which have been found as far back as the12th Dynasty.
We have even found a watermelon in the New Kingdom tomb of Nebseni. We only know of Egyptian plums from the New Kingdom, and the peach does not show up until the Ptolemaic (Greek) period. Olives were probably bought into Egypt with the Hyksos in the Second Intermediate Period, but walnuts and carob pods (St. John’s bread) are only known from the New Kingdom onward.
Meat, Fish and Poultry
While it is difficult to believe that certain meats, such as fish and wild poultry did not show up fairly frequently on the tables of common people, we are told by Egyptologists that it was for the most part only the rich who regularly feasted on most meat. The poor ate geese, ducks, quails, cranes and other species, and from the New Kingdom onward raised domesticated fowl. Most edible fish from the Nile were consumed, though some fish, such as the genera Lepidotus and Phragus and a few others were forbidden because of their connection with the myth of Osiris.
In some locations, even the Nile perch was worshipped, and therefore never eaten. While fish were roasted or boiled, most frequently they were salted and preserved and dried in the sun.
Beef from cattle was frequently eaten by the rich, but appeared on the tables of common people usually only during festive occasions, when a sheep or goat might be slaughtered. We also see from tomb paintings, the preparation of wild game such as antelope, ibex, gazelles and deer. Pork was eaten, though the animal was associated with the evil god Seth. Early on it was widely consumed in Lower Egypt, but rarely in Upper Egypt. Yet we know that pigs were later bred and pork widely eaten throughout Egypt.
While milk, cheese and butter are not well attested to, at least in text, we certainly believe that the early Egyptians were familiar with all of these dairy products. We do find a number of scenes showing men carrying what appears to be pots of milk or cream, and in one Theban tomb from the19th dynasty, we find a seated woman pulling white cones of what is probably butter or cheese out of a large vessel.
Fats and Oil
There were also a number of different oils and fat used in the preparation of food. We know of beef, goat and other fats, and the Egyptian language had 21 different names for vegetable oils obtained from sesame, caster-oil plants, flax seed, radish seed, horseradish, safflower and colocynth. Horseradish oil was particularly popular. Oil and fat was mostly used for frying meat and vegetables, though food was also cooked in milk or butter.
Seasonings and Sweeteners
Sea salt, because of its connection to the evil Seth, was not consumed but salt from the Siwa Oasis was available. Pepper, however, only appears from the Greek period, but other spices were also used, including aniseed, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, dill, fennel, fenugreek, marjoram, mustard and thyme. Sugar itself does not appear in the Egyptian diet until late in history, though honey was used by the rich for a sweetener, but was probably too expensive for the poor.
Common people used various fruits as sweeteners, though the most popular seems to have been dates. Without doubt, because of Egypt’s rich soil and lush vegetation, the rich of Egypt probably always ate well, even during times of drought. In the worst of times, common people probably suffered to some extent, but mostly they were probably fed well, though not as lavishly as the rich.
Banquets were frequent, as were various festivals and other celebrations, and at these times, it is likely that everyone enjoyed the bounty of the Black Land. In fact, it is likely that their superior nutrition had much to do with their success in the ancient world.
Common bakeries were not known until the New Kingdom, but larger kitchens were manned for work gangs, the military as well as the royal household and temple personnel. Common meals were often served with beer, or for the very rich, wine. Beer was fermented mostly from wheat, though occasionally stale bread was utilized. Notation: While one may discover “ancient Egyptian recipes” on the internet, text for recipes on cooking food are notoriously absent from the archaeological record.
Compiled from various sources