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Ancient Egypt: Cultural and political history, mythology and daily life
Ancient Egyptian food
Staples
The menu of the rich
Cooking
Utensils

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Triangular bread loaf
Triangular bread loaf
(Source: University of Memphis)

 

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Food: Bread, beer, and all good things[6]

Staple food

Bakery - (Source: University of Chicago)     The staple food was bread and beer, supplemented by onions or other vegetables and dried fish.

Bakery with vats and cache of bread moulds
Old Kingdom
Source: Oriental Institute, University of Chicago [1]

They eat loaves of bread of coarse grain which they call cyllestis. They make their beverage from barley, for they have no vines in their country.They eat fish raw, sun-dried or preserved in salt brine.
Herodotus, Histories 2,77
    Meat was not eaten often by the fellahin [4]. Even the workers at Deir el Medina, certainly better off than the ordinary peasant, received meat supplies mostly on special festive occsaions only.[10] Growing domesticated animals for the sole purpose of meat production was (and still is) expensive. People sometimes supplemented their diet by hunting and fowling and by gathering wild fruit and roots. In the Tale of Sinuhe the protagonist, who had become a tribal chief, recounts:
Loaves were made for me daily, and wine as daily fare, cooked meat, roast fowl, as well as desert game. For they snared for me and laid it before me, in addition to the catch of my hounds. Many sweets were made for me, and milk dishes of all kinds.
Tale of Sinuhe
M. Lichtheim Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol. 1, p.227
    Temples, apart from having estates of their own where they raised animals, were also given large numbers of cattle by kings and rich officials. A part of these meat offerings was distributed to the needy.
 
    When Seti I (c.1318 - 1304 BCE) sent a thousand troops to the Silsileh quarry he
.... increased that which was furnished to the army in ointment, ox-flesh, fish and plentiful vegetables without limit. Every man among them had 20 deben of bread daily, 2 bundles of vegetables, a roast of flesh and two linen garments monthly.....
Silsileh quarry stela
J.H. Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt part III § 207
    Even after the increase without limit, less than two kilos of often stale bread for hard-working quarrymen might seem less than lavish. The menu of the king's messenger was not quite as basic:
.... That which he had: good bread, ox-flesh, wine, sweet oil, (olive) oil, fat, honey, figs, [....], fish and vegetables every day.
Silsileh quarry stela
J.H. Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt part III § 208
    Malnutrition was not rare [8], though the caloric intake may have been sufficient most of the time.

 

Menu of the rich

From the tomb of Nebamen and Ipuki, Thebes - British Museum - Source: excerpt from 'Ancient Egypt', Time-Life Books-     While the food of the common people was barely adequate at best, and during the recurring corn dearths sadly lacking, the affluent certainly knew how to live it up: Meat, water fowls, vegetables, fruit and wine were part of their diet, as was the ubiquitous bread in one of its many guises. On the whole, Egyptians don't seem to have overindulged; according to the testimonies we have, they looked remarkably fit.
    On the other hand pictures of food laden tables at banquets may be misleading. Tomb pictures, while reflecting ordinary life, generally depict an idealized reality. Stephen Macko of the University of Virginia analyzed hair from Middle Kingdom mummies and 1000 AD Copts and concluded that the ordinary Egyptian during the Middle Ages ate more varied food than the well-off Egyptian bourgeois during the Middle Kingdom [5].

 

Cooking

    The kitchen was often a corner of the courtyard or on the flat roof; at any rate it was open to the air and generally just lightly roofed with branches.
-     Cooking was done in clay ovens as well as over open fires. Wood was burnt as fuel, and sometimes charcoal, even though it was scarce. The quantities of charcoal mentioned in the Harris papyrus or the diary of Medinet Habu were small. It was transported in baskets or sacks.
    For lighting the fire a special kind of wood was imported from the south. It was very precious and even an important temple such as the one at Karnak was allotted only sixty pieces a month. The sailor in the Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor found it on his island in the Red Sea
And on the third day I dug a pit and kindled a fire in it on which I made first of all a burnt offering to the gods, and then cooked meat and fish for myself.

    Food was baked, boiled, stewed, fried, grilled, or roasted. But other than that very little is known about its preparation. They certainly used salt (Hmat) and oil and probably onions, radishes and garlic as well to add flavour to their other foods.
    The Egyptian names of a few condiments are known - provided they have been identified correctly - eg. cumin [2] (tpnn - tepenen), dill (jms.t - ameset), coriander (Saw - shaw), vinegar (HmD - hemedj) and lettuce seeds [7]. Mustard was also grown in Egypt [3] possibly as early as the Middle Kingdom, [9] cinnamon and rosemary were among Ramses III's gifts to the temples, Pliny the Elder thought the Egyptian wild marjoram superior to cunila.
    They drank beer or, more rarely, wine and may also have steeped their meat and fish in them. For sweeteners they used honey, syrup made of unfermented grape juice, and fruit such as raisins, dates, figs, carob and the like. The root of the chuba, a plant growing in the marshes of the Delta, also had a nice sweet flavour [7].

Faience dish Faience dish
Middle Kingdom
(Source: Leiden National Museum of Antiquities)

Utensils

    What is known about kitchen utensils and equipment stems from the items that have been found in tombs. Storage jars, bowls, pots, pans, ladles, sieves, and whisks were all used in the preparation of food. The kitchen tables on which the meat and fish were cut up had three or four legs, but most preparations were made with the dishes on the floor and the cooks crouching or sitting on the ground beside them.

Princess eating duck Amarna princess eating roast duck
Cairo museum
Courtesy Jon Bodsworth

    Most of the commoners used dishes that were made of clay, while the tableware of the wealthy was often made of bronze, silver, and gold. The food was eaten with the tips of the fingers and the diners cleaned their hands in little water bowls at the end of the repast.
 
[1] The photo of the bakery was taken from "The Giza plateau mapping project - 1993-94 annual report" by Mark Lehner
[2] Cumin is mentioned in the Harris Papyrus among the donations Ramses III made to the various temples. Pliny writes about it
There is another wild kind of cummin, known by some persons as "rustic," by others as "Thebaic" cummin: bruised and drunk in water, it is good for pains in the stomach. The cummin most esteemed in our part of the world is that of Carpetania, though elsewhere that of Africa and Aethiopia is more highly esteemed; with some, indeed, this last is preferred to that of Egypt.
Pliny, Natural History, Book XX, 47 - (eds. John Bostock, H.T. Riley)
[3] Mustard was used in ancient medicine: the Romans mixed it with vinegar to resuscitate people who had suffered a fit.
There are three different kinds of mustard, the first of a thin, slender form, the second, with a leaf like that of the rape, and the third, with that of rocket: the best seed comes from Egypt.
Pliny, Natural History, Book XX, 87 - (eds. John Bostock, H.T. Riley)
[4] According to bone remains the labourers erecting the Giza pyramids, many of whom were peasants who had been drafted, seem to have been fed large amounts of beef.
[5] The lack of variety in the dietary intake among Middle Kingdom Egyptians may have been the result of a well functioning redistributive system concentrating on a relatively small number of food stuffs. This stratum of society, having its needs taken care off, had no reason to go looking for new, more diverse food sources.
[6] Bread, beer, and all good things: a phrase often used in mortuary offering inscriptions.
[7] Joan Pilsbury Alcock, Food in the Ancient World, 2006 Greenwood Press, p.55
[8] Walter Scheidel, Death on the Nile: Disease and the Demography of Roman Egypt, 2001 Brill Academic Publishers, p.104
[9] John F. Nunn, Ancient Egyptian Medicine, University of Oklahoma Press, 2002, pp.17f., who thinks the likely Egyptian term to be senep (snp), mentioning the occurrence of the consonants of the Egyptian word in the Latin term for mustard: Sinapis, which is a Greek loanword.
[10] Michel Malaise, "Les animaux dans l'alimentation des ouvriers égyptiens de Deir el-Medineh au Nouvel Empire" in Anthropozoologica 1988, p.70

Fruit and vegetablesFruit and vegetables
BreadBread
Meat and fishMeat and fish
Slaughtering cattleSlaughtering cattle
BeveragesBeverages

 

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These are just suggestions for further reading. I do not assume any responsibility for the availability or content of these websites
 

 

-The Giza plateau mapping project - 1993-94 annual report by Mark Lehner
-From The Earth: An Ancient Griddle and Kitchen Console (Ancient Egypt Research Associates website)
 

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