Feasting with the Pharaohs and Fellahs: Cooking and Dining in Egypt Across the Ages
Ms. Nicole Hansen is a doctoral candidate in Egyptology at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, specializing in comparisons between Ancient and Modern Egypt. Nicole received her MA in Egyptology from the University of Chicago and her BA, also in Egyptology, from UC Berkeley. She is currently working in Cairo on the Theban Mapping Project, editing the Valley of the Kings web site, while she completes her doctoral dissertation.
Ms. Hansen opened her lecture by providing the audience with a list of some of the food stuffs found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, including: emmer wheat, garlic, watermelon, dome palm fruit, dates, fruit cakes, pomegranates, and almonds. Bread was in loaves, which were baked in a wide variety of shapes, such as obelisks, geometric shapes, rounds, and animal shapes. Every Egyptian included in the funerary provisions list for his or her afterlife a thousand - or more - loaves of bread.
As is the case in modern Egypt, bread was a life staple in ancient times. We know the names of many of the bread loaves from texts, but don't yet know which specific bread and which name go together in most cases. One exception is an ancient loaf called "the-ba", which was probably the same as today's "betow. Sun bread, made today in Upper Egypt may have an ancient origin. Bread ovens used in ancient times were known as "taruru", and may be reflected in today's tandoori-type ovens used in Indian cooking. Several years ago, Mark Lehner and Ed Wood teamed up to try to make ancient Egyptian bread, using ancient methods and wild native yeast. Using Emmer and Kamut, both ancient strains of wheat, they made bread dough using the wild yeast they had captured from the air and made into a "starter" not unlike sour dough starter. The bread was baked in clay pots just at the ancients did.
The ancients also loved beer, which was drunk by all age groups in the society. It has been thought for many years that beer was brewed from partially baked barley bread, and in fact some home-brewed beer may have been made that way. Current research is showing, however, that a malt made from sprouted wheat, very like what is used to make modern beer, may have been in regular use. Recently, Kirin Beer, a Japanese company, decided to brew a batch of beer from bread using yeast from date palms. They were able to create a beer type beverage, but it was quite sweet.
Wine was available to the upper echelons of society, and we have ample evidence of wine production. Wine jugs were tagged with the place of origin and the regnal year of the reigning king. Lots of texts on wine making survive from the Greco/Roman period, plus references found in Baghdad, which extol the virtues of Egyptian wines. Ms. Hansen noted that the whole topic of wine making in ancient Egypt has great potential for investigation, which she hopes to pursue.
Meat was a regular part of the diet of the ancients, though some meats such as beef and exotic game meats were unavailable to the poorer members of society except at festivals. Some of the more exotic meats consumed by ancient Egyptians were gazelles, hyenas, and mice. Mice may have been used medicinally. We know that at Deir el-Medina workers received regular rations of mice. Beef was considered a particularly high status meat, and the foreleg was the most highly prized cut. We have positive evidence that cattle were force-fed to the point that they became so rotund they could not walk, and had to be transported to slaughter in a cart. In addition, pigs, goats and sheep were also consumed.
Meat was eaten fresh, as well as dried, and/or salted. Preserved cuts of meat found in tombs are wrapped in linen strips and sometimes entombed in clay caskets shaped like the joint or cut. Researchers seeking to determine how funerary meats were preserved found that the best way to find out was to actually lick the meat!
Poultry eaten by the ancients included cranes, partridges, geese, avocets, pigeons, doves, and ducks of several types. Birds were killed by wringing their necks, then the feathers were plucked. They were roasted on a spit or brazier, and sometimes salted and stored in jars or dried and stored. Domesticated birds, such as ducks and geese, were also force-fed and there is some evidence that the Egyptians may have made the first fois gras from the livers of their over-fed geese. As well as the flesh, eggs were consumed by society at all levels.
Fish, which was readily available to every strata of society, was the most successful form of protein in the ancient Egyptian's diet. Like meat, it was eaten fresh, salted and/or dried. Salted fish is still a part of the diet of modern Egyptians. In addition to the flesh of fish the ovaries containing eggs were part of the diet of the ancients. The ovaries were salted and pressed, just as they are today.
Dairy products were enjoyed by all levels of society. We have records of milk from cows, goats and donkeys being consumed, both as a food and medicinally in the case of donkey milk. Cheese has been found in tombs from the Greco/Roman period. Cheese strainers which have survived from ancient times look very much like those used today.
Fruits, vegetables, legumes and beans were widely consumed by ancient Egyptians, and there is evidence that some of them were cooked and prepared in various ways. A utensil used to puree vegetables after cooking has been repeatedly found in tombs and is nearly identical to a similar utensil used today.
Cakes and sweets were sweetened with honey in ancient times as sugar cane did not come to Egypt until after 600BC. In the tomb of Rekmira there are depictions of people making cakes from little tubers. As no gluten is specified, it is difficult to figure out what these tubers might be, however.
Both men and women cooked. Cooking, however, was not considered a "high status" job! Soldiers prepared their own meals on the battle field. Fishermen who worked the river had to contend with a variety of hazards, including swarms of biting insects, crocodiles and hippos - so it too was a hazardous endeavor.
We find no eating utensils represented in surviving depictions of food and food preparation. Presumably, people ate with their hands, which is also common today. We do know that men ate apart from women and children in most cases. Moderation in eating was considered proper behavior and the indication of an honest man. The evils of overeating were compared to the evils of over indulging in sex, in some texts. The reader is advised that gluttony may well lead to poverty and sickness. Differences between the diets of the rich and poor are commented on in the wisdom literature left by the ancients and include strictures regarding eating in the presence of one's superiors.
Autobiographical texts often note that the deceased "fed the hungry", a good act and one equated to a source of blessing from the gods. On the other hand taking food from the poor is decried as an "abominable act". Famine was, from time to time, a problem in Egypt, and there are surviving depictions of the nobility assuaging the hunger of the poor. Some surviving reference to cannibalism during times of famine may be allegorical, if not actual. There is some evidence that cannibalism may have occurred during Medieval times as well as ancient times, but none are certain.
What has been touted as the first labor strike in history occurred over food rations. The Deir el-Medina workmen, who built the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings during the New Kingdom, were paid in food stuffs from the temple stores and redistribution system. When their rations were not forthcoming, they, staged a sit down protest and refused to work until their rations were delivered.
Many non-royal, decorated tombs depict an offering table before the seated tomb owner, which is piled high with a wide variety of foods. Ms. Hansen noted that these depictions represent the ideal meal, not necessarily reality. Ordinary meals are less frequently depicted. It is interesting to note, however, that nearly every depiction includes abundant quantities of green onions or leeks, which were eaten raw just as they are today. We have nothing surviving that could be considered a "cookbook". Several medicinal texts are the closest we can come to a recipe. Though one would not want to "eat" the resulting concoctions, the texts do give an idea of the types of herbs and spices in use at the time.
With the spread of Islam, new foods came into Egypt, including rice, wheat, sugar cane, coconuts, oranges, lemons and limes. Many of these foods were first traded to Egyptians and continue to be part of the Egyptian diet today. Rice did take a while to catch on in the Arab world, but is now a staple. As noted earlier, honey was the sweetener used by the ancients, but it was supplanted by refined sugar when sugar cane cultivation became well established in the Delta. Egyptians still consume more sugar per capita than any other nation in the world.
Today, many foreign foods have made their way into Egypt, such as potato chips that are turkey, chicken curry, or beef kabobs flavored! Local and imported cheese is popular, as is ice cream and yogurt. Egyptian tastes have become more varied and cosmopolitan. There is even a Seattle Coffee company in the heart of Cairo now!
— Nancy Corbin
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