What did the ancient Egyptians eat?
In a post I made in the past, I discussed the food from the early 1900s and how it was different from the food we are familiar with today. As it turns out, tastes a only hundred years ago were surprisingly different from ours now. But what about food before a hundred years ago? What could food have been like a thousand or even several thousand years ago? For example, the ancient Egyptians are typically known for their massive pyramids, golden sarcophagi, the sparkling Nile River that cuts through their sandy desert, and Tutankhamun. But what did they eat? What did they consider a delicacy? What were their staple foods?
As it turns out, the go-to meal for most ancient Egyptians was bread and beer. Surprisingly, this simple dish would not be enjoyed only by the common man, but as well as by extremely high-ranking officials such as priests, scribes, and pharaohs, though these higher-ranking individuals undoubtedly had larger portions than the common man (Butler, 2013). Interestingly, their bread was not made of wheat as we would expect. Instead, the Egyptians cultivated a type of grain known as emmer which is actually higher in vitamins and minerals than wheat. They also discovered how to make something called “beer bread” with emmer, but this bread is not what you would expect.
Ancient Egyptian beer bread was a type of bread with an overabundance of yeast, and upon baking the bread, they would do so at a low temperature so some of the yeast would survive. When the bread was done, they would then crumble it into containers filled with water, letting this unsightly, chunky, and cloudy mixture slowly ferment until it turned into beer (Butler, 2013). While this mix may sound hard to stomach, the Egyptians seemed to love it as they drank it often. Beyond that, it was also surprisingly healthy and kept people, especially the working class, strong and free of many nutritional deficiencies.
The Diet of Ancient Egyptians
Of course, no one, not even the ancient Egyptians, can survive solely off of bread and beer. Living at the northern edge of Africa, the Egyptians had a wide array of different meat sources that would be pursued by hunters: gazelle, hippos, cranes, and fish. Interestingly, fish was most often preserved with salt rather than simply cooked, and because of this curing process, fish was considered a delicacy and only very high-class individuals such as priests and other temple officials were allowed to eat it (Butler, 2013). A variety of vegetables were grown in the fertile ground of Egypt, its fecundity created by the seasonal flooding of the Nile which, when the waters retreated, would leave behind nutrient-rich silt and other materials. Common vegetables in the ancient Egyptian diet were onions and celery, though stalks of papyrus seemed to be quite popular as well.
But what about sweets? The world would not have any access to sugar to use as a sweetener until the colonials started to commercially grow sugarcane in the Caribbean thousands of years later. Of course, fruit was available in most places and provided people with a touch of sweetness. Besides fruit, however, the Egyptians also made due with an even more impressive sweetener: honey. The Egyptians were so well versed in raising bees to make honey and how to store that honey that when King Tut’s tomb was cracked open, some of the oldest jars of honey were discovered–over 3000 years old–and in a surprisingly good condition for their age. The Egyptians used honey not just for sweets alone. They also used it in more savory dishes such as with meat.
Unfortunately, while no one has yet discovered any ancient Egyptian recipes, much of what they ate, when they ate, and how they prepared their food is documented in dioramas found within tombs (Butler, 2013). Laborers ate only twice a day, their first meal usually a modest serving of bread and beer, while their second meal later in the day was a bit heartier with vegetables, a bit of meat, and more bread and beer. Nobles, royalty, and temple officials, of course, ate very well. They even had access to wine and dairy products such as cheese and milk in addition to their succulent meals of honey-brazed gazelle and honey cakes. At banquets, servant girls with vessels of wine would make sure guests would never run out of drink. At these banquets, there would be plenty of music and dancers for entertainment, as well as a wide variety of food.
Besides the rather unappetizing beer bread by today’s standards, the diet of the ancient Egyptians seemed not to be as drastically different as one would expect from a civilization that lived several thousand years ago. Perhaps in another several thousand years, our own dietary habits will be documented and scrutinized by curious anthropologists.
Butler, Stephanie. (2013). “Eat Like An Egyptian.” History. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/news/eat-like-an-egyptian.