professor Menna Al Dorri revealing information about Egyptian kitchen. Photo by Amira noshokaty
Last week, professor of archaeobotany and food archaeologist Mennat-Allah El-Dorry gave the opening lecture of the season on these topics as part of the Egyptology in Arabic initiative, founded by Egyptologist Fatma Keshk in 2020. The initiative is meant to highlight the intangible cultural elements of ancient Egypt that are still alive today.
It was a full house at the French Institute for Oriental Archaeology (IFAO) in Cairo on 26 October. The lecture gave insights into heritage facts that remain part of the Egyptian kitchen today.
Where is the kitchen?
El-Dorry explained that the concept and role of the kitchen in the archaeological sites of ancient Egypt differ significantly from those in modern-day Egypt.
She highlighted that, based on her observations across three archaeological sites — Tal El-Amarna (Minya), Deir Al Madina (Luxor), and Karnak (Luxor) — there are some common features. These sites typically feature a designated kitchen area with an accompanying oven, a storage space, and a stairway leading to the rooftop, where open-air cooking often took place.
During her time in Mari Gergis, she noted that “some houses had more than one space for cooking. In some cases, one room with an oven also doubled as a bedroom.”
She emphasised that “the presence of an oven didn't necessarily define a space as a kitchen, especially considering the different cooking practices in villages. In these settings, people often prepared food in courtyards without the need for a dedicated kitchen table for chopping.”
Furthermore, El-Dorry pointed out that “the built-in oven often served as a source of warmth during the winter months, with children even sleeping on top of it when it was not in use.”
She added that, while working in Borg Al-Arab in Alexandria, she noticed that the modern-day kitchen there was typically a small room containing the fridge, stove, and sink.
However, the lady of the house seldom used this kitchen. Instead, “she preferred to cook outdoors, utilizing two ovens — one exposed to the open air and the other with a short roof or covering. In the summer, she would cook in the open air, while in the winter, she would use the smaller, sheltered oven.”
A food column
The aluminum food column has been a faithful companion to employees and travellers for many decades. Who could forget its distinctive wooden handle attached to a mobile aluminum rod, holding multiple food pots on top of each other?
"The earliest records of food columns in Egypt date back to the 15th to 17th century. They were also widely embraced in various Arab and Asian countries, including Algeria, Jordan, Palestine, and India, where they were known as 'Sofar Tas' or 'travelling bowls,'" she added.
The food column found its popularity in urban areas, as city residents often lacked the space to have a stove or oven in their homes, relying instead on communal kitchens where they would send their food to be cooked or they would buy food. The food column was usually made of copper and decorated with Arabic calligraphy. The owner’s name was usually engraved to avoid mix-ups.
Though fava beans are a staple in the present Egyptian kitchen, the earliest evidence of its consumption was recorded in the Roman era.