Eat Like An Egyptian: Food in ancient Egypt

Ancient Egypt is most famous for its monumental tombs and elaborate mummification rituals. But it was a land of living people, not the dead, and like all people the Egyptians loved to eat.

An ancient Egyptian painting portraying an Egyptian woman and an Egyptian man harvesting grain in the fields.
Painting depicting a harvest. From the Tomb of Sennutem, c. 13th to 11th centuries BCE. (Image Credit: The Oxford encyclopedia of ancient Egypt)

The diet of the average Egyptian remained more or less the same throughout ancient history. Grains like barley, spelt and emmer wheat formed the base of the Egyptian food pyramid.

Bread and beer were by far the most widely produced and were prepared in the home and on a larger scale for sale by cottage industries. A commonly invoked offering prayer asks for bread and beer in the afterlife, as it was believed that the dead would still require nourishment.

A photo of a basket with preserved loaves of bread and dates from ancient Egypt.
An Ancient Egyptian offering of bread and dates from the Tomb of Hatnefer, 15th Century BCE. (Photo Credit: Met Museum)

The most common bread was round flatbread made of emmer or barley, sometimes sprinkled with seeds like sesame before baking in clay ovens. Most households made their own bread and beer but labourers on work sites got bread and beer from nearby bakeries. In addition to breads and cakes, the Egyptians made pulses and porridges, which were quick, filling, and easy. Beans, peas, lentils, garlic, and onions were an important source of nutrition and were added to pulses and soups.

Sweet cakes were flavoured with ingredients and toppings like honey, palm nuts, tiger nuts, figs or dates. The Egyptians even flattened out a looser pasta-like dough to make a kind of pastry. Honey was not just a sweet treat, it was also used extensively in medicine, and as a preservative.

An ancient Egyptian fresco portraying a garden with fruit-bearing trees, flowers, and waterfowl in a central pond.
“The Garden” fresco from the tomb of Nebamoun, c. 1380 BCE. (Photo Credit: Yann Forget

The Egyptian diet was pretty well balanced and included many different kinds of fruits and vegetables. Staple Mediterranean crops like figs, dates, grapes, olives, and melons were widely cultivated in Egypt. Lettuce was actually considered an aphrodisiac because Egyptian lettuce was phallic shaped and produced a milky-white latex when rubbed.

The Egyptians took milk, butter, cheese, and cream from animals like cows, goats, and sheep. Archaeological and literary evidence suggests that dairy was a very important part of the Egyptian diet in ancient times.

Ancient Egyptian painting of a man leading cattle.
Painting from the Tomb of Zenue, c.
1422-1411 BCE. (Image Credit:
The Yorck Project)

Meat was not a big part of the diet despite the domestication of oxen, goats, cows, pigs, poultry, donkeys, sheep, and antelope. Fish and waterfowl from the Nile River and other bodies of water were a more readily available source of protein. The ancient Egyptians also ate a range of exotic game animals such as antelopes, gazelles, hippopotami, and even giraffes. Stuffed hedgehog was even considered a delicacy!

An ancient Egyptian painting portraying men trapping birds, while other men plow fields with cattle below.
Wall Painting from Cairo, c. 28th – 27th Century BCE. (Image Credit:
The Yorck Project)

Bronze and iron was used for cauldrons, pots, pans, knives, and other kitchen tools. However, most Egyptians had to settle for flint knives and stone or earthen cookingware as these were easy to make and inexpensive. Some surviving stone and flint tools from Egypt are still remarkably sharp thousands of years later.

A painting of an Egyptian man with a brazier, in the background are fruit-bearing plants and vines.
Painting from the Tomb of Amenhotep, c.
1479 –1458 BCE.

The ancient Greek historian Herodotus claimed that pork was never eaten in Egypt for religious reasons but there is plenty of archaeological evidence for their consumption. It is possible that pork taboo only applied for certain groups such as priests or for specific purposes such as offerings.

An ancient painting portraying Egyptians harvesting grapes, and making wine.
Painting of winemaking from a 16th Century BCE tomb.

Wine was produced in ancient Egypt, although not nearly as much as in regions such as Greece and Italy. Egyptian wine was made by storing pressed grape juices into jars which were sealed with clay, with only a few holes popped in the lid to allow the gases to escape during fermentation. Graeco-Roman authors writing in the Classical period had generally unfavourable opinions of Egyptian wine. However, the residue left in wine jars indicates that many wines produced in ancient Egypt would have been quite sweet.

Most Egyptians were fairly healthy for the period, due in large part to the fertility of Egypt and the availability of a relatively nutritious diet. Studies of Egyptian mummies indicate that they did not suffer from diseases related to malnutrition to the same extent as many of their neighbours. However, the Egyptian aristocracy had access to more meats and expensive sweets, and were at a higher risk of developing diet-related conditions. For example, some mummies of high-ranking Egyptians show evidence of arterial disease or obesity. Egyptian medical papyri also reference diabetes, a rare condition in the pre-modern period.

Bibliography

Ruffer, Marc Armand. Food In Egypt.

Peck, William H. The Material World of Ancient Egypt.

Ikram, Salima. Choice Cuts: Meat Production in Ancient Egypt.

Martyn, Charles. Foods and Culinary Utensils of the Ancients.

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