Ancient Egyptian Food and Drink
In Ancient Egypt, the food and drink people consumed depended on the location - a harsh stretch of land in North-Eastern Africa - and the tools and recipes they had already developed. Nonetheless, cuisine in Ancient Egypt was not much different from the food we eat today.
The ancient world was not generally good for the health. People lived much shorter lives and often had access to less nutritious foods. However, the overall prosperity and fertility of Ancient Egypt made it a place of plenty, at least for the wealthy. Had the food not been as rich, the empires would not have lasted as long as they did. Generally speaking, there was a lot of food and drink in Ancient Egypt. It was just a lot harder to prepare than it is in modern society.
What Did the Ancient Egyptians Eat?
The term “Ancient Egypt” covers thousands of years, during which leadership and trade changed. These changes sometimes led to changes in local cuisine. For example, while Egypt is in Africa, it is close enough to the Middle East for trading between the two regions. Therefore, the food is a combination of the cuisines of two continents — Africa and Asia.
The most popular menu item in Ancient Egypt was bread. Wheat and barley were staples in Ancient Egyptian farming. Cooks made bread with the flour produced from these grains. Some seeds and nuts also made their way into the dough. Like today, cooks seasoned bread to alter the taste. It is unclear whether this was class specific or both poor and rich alike used seasoning.
© Andrej Blagojević - Preserved grains
In spite of the vast desert, there was plenty of fertile soil. Ancient Egyptians were able to farm many crops we recognize today. A meal might include celery, garlic, beans, peas, nuts, lentils or lettuce. There is also evidence of olive oil. Fruits including figs, grapes and perhaps melons were also present.
The meat Ancient Egyptians ate was much like the meat eaten today in northeast Africa. There was pigeon, quail, mutton, beef, fish and pork. Milk was another source of nutrition, also used to make cheese and butter.
Ancient Egyptians had plenty of flavor to add to their foods. There was mustard, salt, cumin, coriander, honey, dill and vinegar. A flavorful dish would have been easy using these ingredients.
What Tools Did Ancient Egyptians Use to Prepare Food?
It is clear that we prepare much of the traditional food in Ancient Egypt, like bread and meat, in largely the same way today. For example, the tandoor oven that makes today's naan bread had a cousin in Ancient Egypt's kitchens. Cooks slap the dough on the hot walls of the oven and it makes flatbread.
The mortar and pestle has not changed since ancient times. Still, it was much more important in Ancient Egyptian cuisine than in modern fare. Today, we have machines that can reduce grain and seasonings to powder. In Ancient Egypt, people ground grains and seasonings by hand using these basic tools.
© Ashley Van Haeften - Woman grinding grains
Pottery was important to cooking in Ancient Egypt. They could fill it with bread dough and set it over the fire to bake. It could store olive oil or serve as a vessel for cooking meats and vegetables. Metal was also available in Ancient Egypt. Metal dishes and utensils made up the eating tools of the rich.
A modern person would recognize most of the tools in an Ancient Egyptian kitchen. Fingers were eating utensils, but ladles, knives and spoons were still present for cooking. Even whisks were available to the ancient cook. Bowls, pots and pans are among the artifacts found in Ancient Egyptian ruins.
Historians do know that Egyptians boiled, stewed, baked and roasted foods over fire. Wood was the most popular fuel. Charcoal was available sparingly. The precise preparations of food cooked over fire remain elusive.
What Did the Ancient Egyptians Drink?
Beer was the cornerstone of Ancient Egyptian beverages. Wine was available as well, but much less often and primarily to the rich. The barley used for bread was also used for beer. Unlike today, when drinking beer everyday is taboo, it was necessary in Ancient Egypt. People even traded with it.
© Jim Forest - Ancient Egyptians baking and brewing beer
How Do Historians Know What Ancient Egyptians Ate and Drank?
An important key in finding information about the diet of ancient Egyptians is the artwork left behind. A variety of art pieces depict the types of foods they ate, how they ate them, how they prepared them and who ate what. Tomb murals and similar paintings show virtually every aspect of daily life, so, naturally, the art depicts food too.
Facts About Food and Drink Ancient Egypt:
- Bakers used to shape bread dough into various figures, including animals and humans.
- Ancient Egyptians made beer by half cooking barley, soaking it in water and leaving it to set. They had to strain the clumps of barley out before drinking it.
- When grinding grains, some of the stone used would wear away into the flour, which people would then eat. This often led to severe tooth erosion.