What the ancient Egyptians ate in the distant past has some similarity to what the modern Egyptians eat today. However, there are some types of food that they would eat that the modern Egyptians do not eat and other types that they knew of that the modern Egyptians do not know.
Ancient Egypt was an agricultural country in which most people worked in the fields because of the abundance of water and the soil that was as rich in nutrients back then as it is today. Most of the plants that are eaten today existed in ancient Egypt, though some species that were present in the past have subsequently changed.
The way scientists discover such information is through sciences like archaeobotany and archaeozoology. The first is the analysis and interpretation of plant remains found at archaeological sites, and the latter is the analysis of animal remains.
Archaeobotany focuses on the study of preserved plant evidence from archaeological sites and scientists try to reconstruct and interpret past human-plant relationships by making use of it. This has helped find out what types of food the ancient Egyptians ate.
Mennatallah Al-Dorri specialises in archaeobotanical analysis and has been trying to reconstruct how people in the past cooked and ate. “Some practical examples of edible plants grown in ancient Egypt are lettuce, spring onions, melon, probably purslane, a fleshy-leaved trailing plant with tiny yellow flowers that is sometimes eaten in salads, and mallow, a plant species from the hibiscus family,” she said.
Many types of meat were known to the ancient Egyptians, but some are no longer eaten today. “The ancient Egyptians ate cattle, pigs, fish, ducks, and geese,” Al-Dorri said, adding that there is no evidence concerning how many meals the ancient Egyptians ate or when.
“But they ate bread, vegetables, pigeons, beef, and fish, even if bread today is made using a different species of wheat. We don’t know how the fruit and vegetables used to taste, as a lot of what we eat today has been genetically modified,” she added.
In an article entitled “From staples to luxuries”, Al-Dorri says that Emmer wheat, an ancient two-rowed hulled wheat known as farro in Europe, was mostly used for bread in ancient Egypt, but occasionally, barley was also used. Bread loaves from the time would sometimes contain unground cereal grains, which could have been either unintentionally included or intentionally added.
Two men trying to tame a bull
The Egyptians would also add ingredients like coriander, dried fruit such as figs or dates, cracked grains for a whole-wheat type of loaf, or even colouring agents to their bread, she said. Some edible plants have also been disappearing, such as sycamore figs and tiger nuts, which are edible tubers the size of chickpeas used for food and medicine and one of the first plants planted in Egypt.
Fuul (fava beans), one of the main modern Egyptian dishes that some Egyptians believe existed in ancient Egypt, was not known to the ancient Egyptians, at least in its current form. “The ancient Egyptians did not eat fava beans,” Al-Dorri said, referring to the lack of evidence. But she said that she had discovered “evidence of fuul nabet, or green fava beans, which was incredibly exciting.
“Some discoveries of the remains of food come from the Early Dynastic era from a tomb at Saqqara,” she said. “We rely on archaeozoological and archaeobotanical analysis to find out the nature of these remains, and when we are able to we conduct chemical analysis as well.
“Based on microscopic analysis, a wet dough seems to have been common at least during the New Kingdom to make bread. The dough was baked in a variety of manners that changed over time, as documented on tomb walls. These included baking it 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, c 1550-1070 BCE) or baking on a girdle above the flame,” she said.
Men fishing with nets in the Mareyorqa tomb
She also refutes certain claims, among them that koshary, a dish composed of a mixture of rice, lentils, pasta, and fried onions served with spicy tomato sauce, was known in ancient Egypt, or that molokheya, a leafy vegetable made into soup, was known to the ancient Egyptians, or that the ancient Egyptians would drink beer more than water because the Nile was polluted.
All these statements are incorrect, Al-Dorri said, adding that the quality of people’s diet depended on their social class, with “beef and wine being more common among elites.”
Diet: According to archaeologists, poorer ancient Egyptians would eat a type of whole-wheat brown bread called khushkar. Richer ones would eat more meat and drink milk, as is demonstrated in images on the walls of tombs and temples.
There was a variety of bread types in ancient Egypt, possibly as many 100 types, including a white loaf called kamaz that was stuffed with compressed dates and baked without yeast. Some of the remains of this can be seen in the Agricultural Museum in Cairo.
According to Al-Dorri, peppers, oranges, mangoes, tomatoes, potatoes, corn, rice, and aubergines were all introduced into Egypt at later times and were unknown to the ancient Egyptians.
Archaeologists say that some types of bread, like shamsi bread made in Upper Egypt, was also known to the ancient Egyptians. They also ate pomegranates, apples, Siwi dates, watermelons, pears, and grapes and knew of lentils, green peas, chickpeas, lupine, some species of beans, leeks, and fenugreek. It is believed that they would also use cotton seeds to make oil to cook their food.
The ancient Egyptians recorded scenes from their daily lives on the walls of tombs, documenting how peasants would work in the fields and store grain and images of edible plants and domestic and other animals.
In the Old Kingdom Mereruka Tomb, there is an image of three men, probably fishermen, fishing in the Nile Delta for fish including catfish, tilapia, parrot fish, and Nile snake fish. Another picture shows men trying to catch tuna fish, and another shows images of men carrying doves, probably for food. There is an image of a group of men trying to slaughter a bull, perhaps proof that the ancient Egyptians ate them.
In the British Museum in London, there is a model of an ancient Egyptian grain silo with a statue of a person sitting on its roof, probably the one who registers the amount of wheat going in and out of the silo. In the middle of the silo yard there is a woman threshing wheat using a traditional thresher of the kind still used in Upper Egyptian villages. The silo has doors for the wheat coming in and coming out. The remains of such a silo can be seen near the Ramesseum Temple in Luxor.
Baking in ancient Egypt (courtesy of the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities)
In the Mar If Neb Tomb, there is an image of a high-status man sitting at a banquet with a lot of food including mullet fish, while farmers are sitting at another table.
The ancient Egyptians also ate honey and used it for medicine. They raised bees, and one tomb image shows a man holding a flame while another is collecting honey without the bees stinging him.
The ancient Greek historian Herodotus says that the ancient Egyptians would eat green chickpeas (malana), mullet fish (salted fish), and onions during the spring festival, which is still celebrated today with the same food during the holding of Sham Al-Nessim.
While the ancient Egyptians left no recipes, scientists can deduce how they cooked their food thanks to objects found in tombs. “Every day we discover new and incredible information,” Al-Dorri concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly