A glimpse into the food and foodways of the ancient Egyptians over their 3,000-year history
The pyramids, temples, and tombs are the tangible symbols of ancient Egypt that most people are familiar with. Aspects of the daily lives of the ancient Egyptian, however, are little known but immensely intriguing.
‘What did they eat?’
When I am asked this seemingly simple question, I often find myself giving a blank face while racking my brain for straightforward answers. A couple of facts make it difficult for me to answer: What people refer to as ‘the ancient Egyptians’ represent some 3,000 years of history—with 3,000 years of corresponding food traditions and developments. New cultures brought in crops or cooking techniques; climates changed and created different conditions for plant cultivation; agricultural developments made way for new crops; and foods fell in and out of fashion. The evidence that remains leaves us with much knowledge about the raw ingredients, but almost nothing about preparation methods or dishes. No written menus survive from ancient Egypt. So, although I may not have simple examples of the dishes the ancient Egyptians cooked and ate, the knowledge we have of their food is still vast. What makes it most fun for me as an archaeologist is that we can get different bits of information from different sources, all little bits of a puzzle that help us better reconstruct ancient Egyptian foodways. Keep these challenges in mind as you read this exploration of the food of ancient Egypt.
Bread was a nutritional staple used in many ritual and funerary traditions. It was central to the Egyptian economy, from cereal harvest and processing, to bread baking and exchange. A well-rounded understanding of bread and its production can be formed from illustrations on tomb walls, textual evidence, archaeological remains, ethnographic observations, and experimental archaeology. Hundreds of loaves of bread have actually survived from ancient Egypt, as they were placed in tombs for the deceased to consume. They came in a variety of shapes, including discs, oblong mounds, cones, triangles, and animal and human shapes. The surviving loaves are also invaluable in showing us how they were baked with some showing signs of scorching where they were either closer to the fire or placed on a shelf inside the oven.
Emmer wheat was the primary cereal used for bread but occasionally, barley was also used. The low gluten content of both flours precluded any significant rise of the dough and yielded thick, dense loaves. Archaeological bread loaves, whether whole or fragmented, often also contain unground cereal grains, which could have been either inadvertently included or deliberately added. Other elements are also occasionally present: Spices such as coriander; dried fruit such as figs or dates; cracked grains for a whole-wheat type loaf; or even colouring agents. Firm dough that could be shaped by hand, or dough of a more liquid consistency poured into clay bread moulds are both depicted on tomb walls. Based on microscopic analysis, a wetter dough seems to have been more common—at least during the New Kingdom. The dough was baked in a variety of manners that changed over time, as documented on tomb walls. These include baking directly over hot ashes; placing the dough on a stone over an open flame, or in ovens, either on an inside shelf (or stone slab) or by slapping thin, flat discs of dough onto the inner walls (only known in the New Kingdom, ca. 1550–1070 BCE); or baking on a girdle above the flame.
Vegetables and Pulses
Vegetables and pulses were an important nutritional accompaniment to bread. Onions, especially spring onions, were always part of the standard tomb offerings and were even included in a meal depicted on a tomb wall. Lettuce, very similar to baladi lettuce with big leaves, was a staple also often depicted in offering scenes in addition to being emblematic of Min, the ancient Egyptian god of fertility. Egyptian cucumber (’atta) was also depicted in offering scenes. Other types of cucumbers and gourds were known to the ancient Egyptians but identifying them precisely based on the artistic evidence is fraught with difficulties.
Mallow (khobizza) is a field weed that has grown alongside cereals since ancient times, and it is likely that the ancient Egyptians realised its tastiness and nutritious value early on. Olive finds are occasional until the New Kingdom (ca. 1550–1070 BCE) and only become frequent in the Graeco-Roman period, when olive oil was pressed in large-scale facilities. Other oils, such as linseed and castor may also have been available although evidence for either is uncertain.
Pulses such as lentils were also widely consumed. Lentils have been found commonly on archaeological sites. In a Theban tomb, for example, several tightly packed balls of what seem to be cooked brown lentils were found. Lentils would have been either consumed brown (‘ads bi-gibba) or processed to remove their brown seed coats and served orange. It is conceivable that they would have been made into a soup-like concoction, but evidence for that is not available. A few chickpeas have been found, and there are even little faience models believed to be chickpeas dating to the Middle Kingdom. Some peas have also been found, but far too few to determine whether they were a dietary component or a wild contamination of other pulse crops.
Fava beans, the backbone of modern Egyptian cuisine, were probably not consumed by ancient Egyptians. The remains of fava beans are far too few to make that assumption, and they seem to have only become popular later in the Graeco-Roman period. In fact, it is believed that priests may have been forbidden from eating them, but how far this taboo would have gone down the hierarchy of Egyptian society is not known. What is certain, however, is that the ancient Egyptians ate some kind of bean. Beans are mentioned as part of the provisions provided by the state to workers working in Deir el-Medina, and Ramesside kings distributed hundreds of jars of ‘shelled beans’ amongst workmen, but the ancient Egyptian word for the beans in question has not been adequately translated yet.
One of my favourite components in ancient Egyptian food is the tiger nut (hab al-‘aziz), known also by its Spanish name, chuffa. A member of the papyrus family, its tubers are delicious eaten fresh, dried, or roasted. It has been found as an offering in tombs since very early on in Egyptian history during the Predynastic Period. It was boiled in beer (at least in Hellenistic times), which made it sweeter. It was also the main ingredient in the closest thing we have to a recipe from ancient Egypt, carved on the walls of the tomb of a vizier called Rekhmire (ca. 1479–1400 BCE) in the Tombs of the Nobles in Luxor.
Fruits were a very common element of funerary offerings and were certainly part of the diet. Dates were rare prior to the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2030–1660 BCE), probably because the date palm needed artificial pollination to bear fruit, which was only introduced from Mesopotamia in the Middle Kingdom. The dates would have been consumed fresh or dried, allowing them to be stored after their season was long gone. They may also have been roasted. Today in many Egyptian villages, fresh dates are left to dry in the sun and turned over every day or so to ensure uniform drying, but the ancient drying process may have been aided by the addition of light heat. Dried dates were sometimes added to bread or cakes, and the fruits may have been pressed to create wine or at least to sweeten grape-based wine.
Dom, a hard, brown fruit is one of the most common offerings presented to the dead in tombs. The dom-palm itself is very often presented in tomb scenes. A listed offering includes ‘dom cakes’, which suggests that they were also used for baking, although how they would have been incorporated in a cake is unknown.
Two types of figs were known, sycamore figs and common figs. The common fig fruits were slightly bigger than the sycamore figs and sweeter. Both could have been eaten dried or fresh and added to breads or cakes.
Grapes were of the most popular and beloved fruits and came in several colours and varieties. They were not only a tasty, refreshing fruit, but could also be dried for storage or to impart additional sweetness to cakes and breads, as attested in actual finds of bread with added raisins. With fresh grapes being the basis of wine, dried raisins may have also been added as sweeteners or to support its fermentation.
Pomegranates offered a tasty fruit, as well as a delicious juice which may have been left to ferment to produce the ancient Egyptian wine known as shedeh. The beautiful fruit of the pomegranate was often used in decorative motifs, appearing in amulets and jewellery. Pomegranates are wonderfully represented in the New Kingdom Theban tomb of Sobekhotep, tied together as an offering, alongside a tangle of grapes.
Christ’s thorn (nabk), occasionally still on sale in winter on Egyptian street carts, are small round fruits with dry but very tasty flesh. These were commonly found in tombs from as early as the Predynastic Period, and their fruits were even sometimes used as beads in collars placed on mummies. They are related to juniper berries (‘en-nab), which have become very rare as well.
Watermelons and other types of melons were also known in ancient Egypt. Several fruits that were once beloved by the ancient Egyptians, however, are no longer known in Egypt. These include persea, yellow fruits placed in tomb offerings starting from Dynasty 3. Another one is the Egyptian plum, a sweet, orange-coloured fruit also known from that period.
Meat, Poultry, and Fish
Beef would have been, like today, the most prized source of meat, followed by mutton, goat, and pork. Butchering shops are depicted in both tomb scenes and in models of daily life found in tombs. They show how cattle throats are slit and the intestines and rib cage pulled out and that Egyptians consumed ribs, filets, and legs of beef. A find of cows with their skulls split open, giving access to their brains, suggests that Egyptians also enjoyed that delicacy. The presence of full heads of cows on many painted offering tables suggested that head meat (lahmet rass) was as beloved then as it is today in Egypt. Texts from the third century CE show that offal, trotters, lungs spleen, liver, kidney, ‘calf’s foot soup’ (so probably kaware‘), testicles, sausages, tripe, and brain were available in Egyptian meat shops, and it is likely that this was the case in even earlier times. The same cuts and offal of mutton and lamb were most probably also consumed. Meat may have been boiled or roasted, grilled, salted, or dried. Evidence of force-feeding of cattle and pigs is also documented. Pigs were consumed, although on occasion, were prohibited for priests. Wild boars would have been caught using nets or by aiming rocks. Like beef, they wold have been boiled, roasted, or grilled. Hares (or rabbits) were often seen held by their ears on tomb walls, which may suggest that they were also eaten. Hartebeest, addax, oryx, ibex, gazelle, hippopotamus, and crocodile were some of the unusual wild animals consumed. This is attested by the presence of cut marks on their bones.
Duck, geese, and quail were eaten in addition to wild birds. There is also evidence of the consumption of ostrich, and there may even have been ostrich farms! Scenes of the force-feeding of fowl have led scholars to suggest that the ancient Egyptians prepared foie gras but evidence is inconclusive: modern villagers force-feed fowl with no knowledge of foie gras. Chickens were a later arrival. There is some evidence of chickens from the New Kingdom onwards, but they certainly did not become widespread until much later. Eggshells from fowl and ostriches are a common occurrence on archaeological sites, where they were often reworked into beads (especially ostrich shells, which are thicker). Eggs were probably commonly eaten. However, how they would have been prepared is not documented. Whether they were used in other foods, such as baked goods, is also unknown.
Almost a hundred species of Nile fish were eaten, including tilapia (bulti), catfish, and Nile perch which are consumed until today. Mullet roe (batarekh) and salted fish were exported throughout the Mediterranean. Fish would have been grilled, salted, or dried. Dried, stinky fish (feseekh), commonly eaten today for Egyptian Easter, probably has its origins in ancient Egypt. Fish were caught either in nets or using hooks and lines, or even by spear fishing. Molluscs, including Nile oysters, were known and consumed from the Early Dynastic Period (ca. 3100–2649 BCE). One would hope they were eaten raw, but how they were prepared is not known.
Cow milk was certainly consumed, since we have milking scenes. Milk from other animals was also probably used. Cheese, cream, and perhaps a ghee- or butter-like product were most likely produced as well, although evidence is scant. Several finds (mostly round) believed to be cheese have been found in ancient Egypt.
Little is known about condiments. Spices such as coriander, cumin, dill, and fenugreek were available and known, often imported from other countries in the Near East or Africa. Fenugreek was even used in bread. Salt, whether from lakes or from the sea, was also used.
Sweets and Treats
A highly expensive commodity only accessible to the wealthy, honey was believed to have been created from the god Ra’s tears that turned into a bee. Not only was it used as a sweetener in foods, and probably drinks as well, it was appreciated for its medicinal and antibacterial properties. While it may originally have been obtained from wild bees, apiculture was definitely practiced by the ancient Egyptians.
A variety of cakes and pastry types were also known, many of which were sweetened using dried fruits like raisins, dried figs, dates, or even honey. Porridges with wheat or barley sweetened with honey or dried fruits might also have been available.
From tomb scenes, vessels, and other archaeological evidence, beer and wine production and consumption are well known, even if some elements remain less understood. Of other beverages, such as juices, there is sadly less evidence. It is most likely, however, that fruit juices were well known, and drinks from dom and carob may have also been consumed. Carob actually may have even been used as a sweetener in beverages but finds are rare. There is no evidence of warm drinks, which were certainly also available.
The Lotus Question
You often see lotus in tombs on offering tables, which may have been either a decorative motif, almost like a garnish, but may also have been eaten. Indeed, Herodotus talked about the lotus (or a type of water lily) being eaten, but scholars are uncertain whether he meant the lotus flower, or if it was a misnomer for something else. In any case, he mentioned that the ‘lotus’ gave a fruit that when washed and dried and pounded could have been used to make bread, while its roots were also eaten and were pleasantly sweet.
Shopping, Eating, and a Little Advice
Little concrete evidence is available on how the ancient Egyptians would have procured their food. It is likely however, that many people would have had small kitchen gardens around their houses. Those who were fortunate enough to own cattle would have had a fresh supply of milk. Two scenes that look like a market are known: a woman with a display of spring onions, and another with something that looks like a round cheese or butter. Those working for the state, such as the pyramid builders in the Old Kingdom or those working on the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings, would have received provisions as part of their wages.
Other than how people may have sat for meals, we know nothing about the number of meals a day and what would have been on the menu. A couple of scenes show people seated having food in front of a table. Some even show a complete meal. A man sitting and eating onions with a knife is probably a peasant having his midday meal. There are also scenes of men working in the fields and we can see a meal next to them.
In spite of this dearth of evidence, we do know that table manners were desirable from the instructions given to Kagemni, the fourth-dynasty vizier of King Snefru (ca. 2575–2465 BCE).
Pieces of a Puzzle
We know about the food the ancient Egyptians ate from a variety of sources. For example, archaeological evidence of kitchen spaces helps paint a picture of kitchen layouts. Identifying a kitchen in an archaeological context, however, is not always straightforward, unless it contains an oven or a kanun (an open-topped stove-like heating installation). Each had a different use: ovens were best for baking and for foods that required long, strong heat from all sides. Kanuns, on the other hand, were prefect for grilling foods (such as bread) and were also suitable for stewing. Most kitchen contents were ephemeral and mobile, and much of the food preparation may have taken place outside in courtyards. Middle Kingdom models show us baking spaces, butchering spaces, but these are mostly industrial-scale contexts and not private kitchens.
Although cooking scenes are not too common, a few show grilling, boiling, baking, heating, and roasting. Knives were used for cutting and long rods for roasting and grilling. Sticks (or spoon-like implements) were used for stirring. It is likely that people ate using their hands. One of the few scenes of kitchen spaces comes from Amarna.
A huge array of ceramic vessels has been found offering a wealth of information. Their forms indicate their uses and many show burn marks on their side or bottom, indicating how they were used on an oven or kanun. Their contents often seep into their walls and can be analysed today using chemicals. For example, vessels that were used to store or cook dairy products show traces of fat and DNA analysis can often tell us what animal that milk came from.
Archaeozoology, the study of animal remains, shows us what species were present and gives conclusive evidence that they were used for human consumption through the examination of cut marks on the bones. This also shows which cuts of meat were used. Archaeobotanical (plant) remains are also a good resource and show the different plants that were available. Although we may not always be sure that they were eaten, or how they were prepared, once in a while, you have surviving plants indicating their preparation. For example, grains found in a germinated state, such as wheat grains used to make malt for beer. Although we often have trouble being certain of how certain words are translated, texts are still an invaluable resource. Lists of commodities or offerings and labels on scenes of different cooking and food preparation-related activities provide direct evidence of how things were done. Artistic evidence on tomb and temple walls, and even three-dimensional art such as models placed in tombs, are also a great resource. Finally, finds of food, such as bread loaves, are a sure-fire way to investigate how things were made using varied methods of analysis.
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Mennat-Allah El Dorry is an Egyptologist specialized in archaeobotanical analysis. Much of her research has revolved around food and trying to reconstruct how people in the past cooked and ate. She is currently editing the proceedings of an international conference on food in Egypt and Sudan that she organized in 2018 in cooperation with the Institut français d’archéologie orientale and the Polish Centre for Mediterranean Archaeology. Instagram: eatlikeanegyptian