Food History: What did ancient Egyptians eat?
The longevity of ancient Egyptian society, some 3,500 years, was largely because they had the good fortune to live in a sunny land, well-watered by the river Nile, which was just right for growing a wide variety of vegetables and cereal crops. Throughout human history, however, your wealth dictated the access to and variety of foods available. Poor Egyptians relied on a diet of bread, beans, onions and green vegetables to stave off hunger.
Where do we get our evidence?
Food features prominently in Egyptian wall paintings and reliefs of all periods. Old Kingdom (2613 to 2181 BC) tomb owners are shown overseeing the work of their servants preparing and delivering all manner of foodstuffs. Many tomb paintings showing the production and preparation of food were intended to ensure a plentiful supply for the deceased in the afterlife. Middle Kingdom (2040 to 1782 BC) tomb models reproduce the activities of the bakery, brewery and butcher’s yard. New Kingdom (1570 to 1070 BC) monarchs are portrayed offering to the gods plates of bread, meat and vegetables. Indeed, the simplest offerings on many funeral stelae were bread and beer, the staples of the Egyptian diet whatever a person’s status. But other commodities can also be identified such as meat, fowl, fruit, vegetables, oils and unguents. Food remains from tombs are of great interest, many specimens having survived in a recognisable form. Beer and wine stored in semi-porous jars evaporate quickly and their residues are not easily analysed. Fats, oils and dairy products degenerate to an unappetising collection of basic organic chemicals, but where their residues have soaked into porous storage jars then these can be analysed and identified.
Evidence from non-funerary contexts as to the methods of preparing and cooking food is sparse. There are few settlement sites available for archaeological investigation since most major sites are still occupied, especially in the Nile Delta, which was the agricultural heartland of ancient Egypt. Moreover, those domestic sites that have been investigated are atypical being the villages of the pyramid builders, at Kahun for example, or the royal tomb builders at Deir el-Medina. Such locations were separate from other settlements and had a different social structure.
Changes in climate and ecology within the last 4,000 years must be considered. Plants that once grew wild in Egypt are no longer found there. Likewise, animals and birds which thrived in the Nile Valley have not done so for centuries. Whereas crops now associated with Egypt, such as cotton, sugar cane and potatoes, are modern introductions.
When the grain harvest was abundant, government officials ensured wheat and barley was stored in granaries that belonged to the pharaoh. Such measures ensured grain could be shared out to everybody in years when the crop was poor. Grain was a staple food and so important in the diet that it constituted a major item in the food rations paid as wages to royal workmen.
Small loaves of barley bread were included in the funerary banquet found in the Second Dynasty tomb 3477 at Saqqara. The gourmet meal, known as the ‘Saqqara Banquet’ (pictured above), was prepared for a noblewomen and had been set out beside the burial pit within her mastaba, a mud-brick tomb.
Ancient Egyptian bread-making was a simple affair that began with crushing grain to flour between a hand stone that was pushed and pulled across a saddle quern. This style of grinding had its roots in the Neolithic period and continued in use through the Bronze Age until the more efficient rotary quern appeared. The latter was probably invented somewhere in the western Mediterranean during the 5th century BC from where it proliferated widely thanks largely to ancient Greek and Roman armies and merchants.
The flour was mixed with water and a little salt to form a dough that was then shaped into loaves. The basic flat loaf resembled pitta bread. Unleavened dough could be shaped by hand and cooked directly on a flat stone placed over a fire, on the baking floor inside a clay oven - think pizza oven - or even by being slapped on to the pottery wall of the oven itself. Some loaves were simply cooked in the ashes of the fire or in ceramic pots stacked over a fire (cf. the Roman testum). Leavening was most probably effected by washing the mixing bowl with water to remove the dough sticking to it from the previous batch. More flour is added and mixed to a paste which is left overnight to sour. The sour dough starter then forms the basis of the next day’s bread mix. Bread, or ta, has been leavened in this way in Egypt for thousands of years.
Loaves were shaped in ovals, triangles and indented squares, all of which appear among offerings. Some are shown with slashes across the crust enabling the bread to rise. Some loaves were modelled in the form of animals, human figures or fancy shapes popular for special occasions such as religious festivals (cf. Horus’ victory over Seth). Honey might be added to the mixture to make a sweeter tasting bread, and some flavoured with nuts and spices. A fruit loaf in the Cairo Agricultural Museum was made by layering mashed dates between two discs of dough.
Another staple of ancient Egyptian diets was beer, which was produced and consumed in large volumes. The discovery of beer was a by-product of the Agricultural Revolution  (c. 10,000 BC) when humans began to gather and domesticate wild grains. Ancient Egyptian beer was treated as a type of food being consumed daily, and in great quantities at religious festivals and celebrations. The calories provided by beer were essential for labourers, especially the pyramid builders, who were provided with a daily ration of 1⅓ gallons (over 10 pints).
Wooden models excavated from tombs provide clues as to how ancient Egyptians strained their brewing mash through a cloth into ceramic vessels. In brewing, a mash is the combination of grain and water that is heated to convert the starches in the grain into sugars that can be fermented by yeast to produce beer. It is thought ancient Egyptian brewers used a two-stage mash. A cold mash was made using water at the ambient temperature mixed with a malted, ground grain or crumbled leavened loaves, which were partly baked so as not to destroy the enzymes that promoted fermentation. Either way the mash would have contained all the active enzymes needed to convert starch to sugar. The second mash, which was probably processed at the same time, mixed unmalted, ground grain with hot water and would be further heated. There is evidence of heat exposure on ceramic brewing vessels found in Egypt but while heating the mash allows the starches present to unravel, it has the unintended consequence of killing the enzymes. By preparing the hot and cold mashes separately and then combining them means the accessible starches and the enzymes required to convert them are both present.
Once mixed, the mash was left to cool, at which point the enzymes start to convert the starches in the grains to fermentable sugars. When cool, the mash would need to be sieved of any residual grain directly into a ceramic fermenting vessel. This ceramic vessel is key to the ancient Egyptian fermenting process as its porous interior provided the ideal surface for a wild yeast culture to grow. With the vessel covered, the mix was left to ferment.
The resulting beer would have been drunk while still actively fermenting from the ceramic vessel itself. It was unlikely that the beer was decanted from these large vessels, but we know drinking straws were used. The straws were probably to prevent sediment being consumed by the drinker and a matter of hygiene since many people would have drunk from the same vessel. Egyptian straws would have been made from clay, with holes or a filter at the end to sieve out some of the sediment.
The ancient Egyptian beer brewing method is far simpler than modern methods, but Egyptian beer ferments faster and is materially more efficient. They worked without thermometers and starch tests, without the microbiology of yeast and enzyme conversion, yet created refreshing beer that could have been made continuously in huge volumes.
Though beer was by far the most popular drink wine was made too. Vineyards have been identified in the Nile Delta area and grape vines were grown on trellises in domestic gardens. After harvesting ‘treaders’, supporting their weight by hanging onto ropes specifically for that purpose, used their bare feet to crush the grapes in a large trough. The grape juice. or ‘must’, was collected and poured into ceramic jars to begin the first fermentation. The must may have been left to ferment anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. At the end of the fermentation process, the jars were sealed and the wine left to mature. There is some evidence that amphorae were coated inside with a resinous compound to prevent the wine being lost through porous pottery.
The unique flavour of Retsina, a Greek white (or rosé) resinated wine, is said to have originated from the practice of sealing wine vessels, particularly amphorae, with Aleppo pine resin in ancient times. One wonders whether Ancient Egyptian wine may have had a similar flavour.
Many finds of grapes or sun-dried raisins, often indistinguishable, have been made in tombs of all ages, and bunches of blue-black grapes and baskets of similar coloured fruit are common in offering scenes. Dessert grapes were included c. 1325 BC in an attractive bottle-shaped basket in Tutankhamun’s tomb.
Cereals, fruit ‘n’ veg
The major part of Egypt’s arable land was given over to cereals and flax, and these are the crops usually featured in agricultural scenes. As today, small plots of domestic crops would have been cultivated between larger fields. Irrigation systems gave the land a chequerboard appearance, each ‘field’ divided into squares by low ridges of earth enabling small areas to be watered individually. The water was lifted from irrigation ditches by hand or by a shaduf, a counterweight beam with a bucket which is still used today.
The river we know as the Nile was called ‘Ar’ by the ancient Egyptians. It means ‘Black River’ because fertile silt carried by the water was deposited on the land when the river flooded each year. Nile comes from the ancient Greek word Neilos, the god of the river. Most Egyptians, therefore, lived along the banks of the Nile next to the fertile farmland created by this rich, silty mud where they could grow lots of food crops. The ancient Egyptians called their land ‘Khemet’, which means ‘Black Land’.
The Egyptian workman’s packed lunch consisted of bread, beer and onions. The Greek historian, Herodotus, tells us that quantities of onions and radishes were given as wages to the builders of Pharoah Khufu’s pyramid. Bunches of onions with green stems and round white bulbs are shown draped over offering tables. The small ancient onions were probably sweeter and less eye-watering than their modern equivalent. Garlic was grown from the earliest times. Once again the ancient kind were smaller than the modern cultivated species and were probably milder in flavour.
Lettuces, although included among food offerings, are not immediately recognisable. The shape is elongated like a Cos lettuce. In medical papyri, lettuce is recommended as a cure for impotence and is traditionally held to have aphrodisiac properties.
Cucumbers were small, blunt-ended with fewer seeds than the European variety. Cucumbers with curled over stalks often fill the gaps between other food offerings. Small cucumbers would have been pickled to provide a year-round supply of vegetables.
Despite Herodotus’ claim that the Egyptians hated beans, from very ancient times beans (e.g. black-eyed and yellow), peas and lentils were included in tombs. The latter were being cultivated before 3150 BC. The most easily recognised is the chickpea which could be served as a vegetable or ground into flour used to enrich bread dough. The most popular modern chickpea recipe is hummus, made simply with mashed chickpeas and sesame oil. It is not inconceivable that a form of hummus was part of the Egyptian diet. As for beans, a pale variety of the common broad bean (Vicia faba) has been identified. Pharaonic cooks almost certainly invented ta’amia or felafel, fried rissoles made from mashed beans, onion, garlic and spices.
Besides vegetables grown in garden and field plots, plants were harvested from the wild. The multi-purpose papyrus plant (Cyperus papyrus) is mentioned by Herodotus as being pulled up, the stalks cut in two and the lower half eaten after being baked in a closed pan. The young shoots of papyrus could also have been eaten like bamboo shoots.
The most popular of ancient Egyptian flowers, the lotus, was a source of food. There are two sorts of lotus or waterlily mentioned by Herodotus:
The white lotus (Nymphaea lotus; seshen in Egyptian) known from the Old Kingdom and used for festival garlands, bouquets and offerings. The black-skinned lily root, ‘the size of an apple’ according to Herodotus, was peeled and the inner white part eaten either raw, baked or boiled.
The pink lotus (Nelumbium speciosum) produces a seed head containing up to 36 seeds each the size of an olive stone.
The dish of stewed fruit in the Second Dynasty Saqqara Banquet described as ‘possibly figs’ is most likely to be the Wild or Sycamore Fig (Ficus sycomorus). The fruit are smaller, yellower and have more astringent taste than ordinary figs but were a very popular dessert fruit from very early times. The True Fig (Ficus carica) seems to have been introduced into Egypt before the Old Kingdom, i.e. before 2613 BC. The trees were smaller and more bush-like than sycamore figs and probably confined to the gardens of the wealthy. The fig harvest was considered important enough to be portrayed in tombs, where gardeners are shown competing for the fruit with monkeys. Besides being grown for eating, figs were used to make a wine and a liqueur said to have a fiery aftertaste.
A tree of equal importance with the fig was the date palm. Coloured representations of palms laden with fruit show that the predominate species in ancient times bore yellow or brown dates. Finds of date stones have been made at numerous sites from the Predynastic era onwards. Apart from being eaten fresh or dried, dates were made into purée or jam to accompany festival bread and are thought to have been used to enrich and flavour beer.
Other significant fruits include:
The pomegranate, probably introduced via Palestine during the 2nd Intermediate Period (c. 1782-1570 BC).
The oval yellow berry of the Persea tree (Mimusops laurifolia).
The Mandrake fruit are often shown on trays of offerings. The slightly poisonous flesh of the mandrake fruit has a sickly, insipid taste and the stone has high concentrations of toxins with narcotic effects. It is often shown being held to the noses of diners and, as its hallucinatory properties were recognised and it was thought to be an aphrodisiac, the sniffing of the fruit may be the ancient Egyptian equivalent of smoking ‘pot’.
In summary, vegetables of all sorts formed a large and important part of the Egyptian diet and, together with bread, formed the basis of most meals. It is likely that most Egyptian peasants existed on a purely vegetarian diet, only dreaming of meat and relishing the occasional luxury of fish or wildfowl.
Meat, fish and fowl
Beef was the preferred meat for ancient Egyptians but only if they could afford it - throughout most of human history, meat remained the preserve of wealthier people. Beef was expensive because cattle needed fields of grass to eat and that took precious land away from crop production. Most scenes of butchery deal with the preparation of cattle carcases, always oxen. Nothing would have been wasted; the animal’s blood would have been saved to make a blood sausage (black pudding). The carcase was jointed with haunches, racks of ribs, steaks and ox heads all depicted in scenes. Pieces of meat are shown hung up on lines or racks. Some may have been allowed to air cure in the sun to create a sort of biltong.
Other meat sources such as goat and mutton were considered not quite so good, while pork was said by some ancient commentators (Herodotus and Galen) to be unclean and forbidden to Egyptians. Herodotus details the festivities held in memory of Horus’ victory over Seth, to whom the pig was sacred. It was, he said, the only time of the year when people ate pork and those families who could not afford a pig would eat loaves made in the shape of the animal. However, at the Middle Kingdom town of Kahun and the 18th Dynasty workmen’s village at Amarna, large quantities of pig bones have been found indicating that pork played a significant role in the diet of the working-class Egyptian. Fish were also said to be taboo, but this was most likely only applicable to the priesthood.
Egyptians ate a lot of fish, conveniently sourced from the Nile, although oddly the profession of fisherman was apparently despised by all classes even when the fish themselves were considered a lucky charm. Catches were cleaned, gutted and slabbed, that is split open down the backbone and flattened, either on the fishing boat or shortly after being landed on the riverbank. The prepared fish were allowed to hang in the sun from wooden frames or the boat’s rigging to dry. Fish were also salted or pickled in oil to preserve them.
Poultry or wild birds were widely eaten because they were the cheapest meats to buy. A multitude of bird species inhabited the reedbeds along the Nile. Birds such as pigeons, storks, crane, egrets, teal, geese and ducks were all eaten. Such commodities could be bought at market or hunted. Depictions of Egyptians hunting wildfowl (predominantly ducks and geese) in the papyrus reed beds lining the Nile clearly show them using throwing sticks. Ducks and geese were kept in poultry pens and yards where they were fed on grain. The Egyptians had to rely on these birds for eggs as domestic fowl had yet to be introduced in any numbers until Roman times.
Most villagers would have had access to a supply of goat’s or sheep’s milk. Fresh milk would not keep for long in Egypt’s heat so milk may have been cultured into a product like yoghurt. As with most areas, a simple cheese called labna is made in modern Egypt by straining salted yoghurt to a creamy consistency. A firmer cheese, gebna, is made from pressed, salted curds and may be kept for two or three days to dry and harden. Both labna and gebna could have been produced by the ancient Egyptians. Two jars from the First Dynasty tomb of Hor-aha yielded fatty residues which have been identified as the remains of cheese.
Condiments The most basic of diets may be enlivened and varied by the careful use of condiments. Certain of these, such as salt, oil and vinegar, are also essential to some common methods of food preservation.
It is not known for certain whether the Egyptians used vinegar as its remains would be indistinguishable from the residues of beer and wine. However, given the prevalence of beer and wines and their tendency to go sour in hot climates, it seems inconceivable that the Egyptians did not discover the use of vinegar in flavouring and preserving food.
Salt was probably the oldest and most useful condiment available to all classes, but the methods by which the Egyptians extracted a pure form for the table are unknown. It is assumed that sources included naturally occurring salt deposits, particularly from the Western Desert and the oases, or from salt pans on the Mediterranean and Red Sea coasts. Salt was used for curing and preserving fish and meat.
The oldest royal food list, from the Sixth Dynasty pyramid of Unas, includes five kinds of oil. Oil was an important food item as shown by its inclusion in the daily rations issued to royal servants like the King’s Messenger and Standard Bearer from the reign of Seti I. He received, as his wages: ‘…good bread, ox flesh, wine, sweet oil, olive oil (possibly), fat, honey, figs, fish and vegetables every day.’
The sweet product valued above all others was honey. The bee was the symbol of Lower Egypt where the extensive pasturelands and beds of flowering reeds provided an ideal environment for apiculture. Honey was stored in different shaped jars, possible an indication of the quality, and the lids sealed with wax. Whole honeycombs are sometimes shown among food offerings. Poorer Egyptians used fruit, particularly figs and dates, as sweeteners. Sauces could be sweetened with fruit purée or a concentrated fruit juice like pomegranate syrup which is still widely used in Middle Eastern cookery.
Herbs grown in garden plots or gathered from the wild include flat-leaf parsley and coriander both of which were used to flavour meat. Rosemary grows naturally in Egypt and is assumed to have been available in ancient times. Leaves of mint and sage have been found from later periods but other herbs, like dill, chervil and fennel, may be represented among the list of unattributed plant names. Cumin seeds were included in the burial of the architect Kha. Whole seeds were sprinkled on bread dough before baking and the ground spice was probably used to flavour meat. Fenugreek, with its distinctive curry smell, has been found South of Cairo and dated to 3,000 BC. Black seed mustard has been recovered from New Kingdom tombs and as poppies were cultivated for their flowers and for medicinal uses, they would have been available to cooks.
No Egyptian culinary recipe books are known, although papyri listing medicinal concoctions suggest ways in which foodstuffs could have been prepared. Cooking was often done outdoors as there was not much chance of rain but could also be performed in a kitchen area, often at the back of the house, beneath a lightweight thatch of reeds and sticks that allowed smoke and smells to escape. Within this space would be a mudbrick or clay oven and a mortar set into the floor for pounding or grinding grain. Poorer Egyptians whose home comprised a single room cooked over a fire set in a hole in the floor. Not only would wealthier people have servants to cook for them but said servants might also use charcoal braziers to spit roast and grill meat, or to braise lesser cuts of meat or stew the same in pots.
To light a fire, the hand drill was the most widespread tool. It uses a thin, straightened wooden shaft or reed that is spun by the hands in a notch cut into the softer wood of a ‘hearth-board’ (or hearth). The repeated spinning and downward pressure heats the wood fibres causing black dust to form in the notch of the hearthboard which, in turn, eventually produces a hot, glowing coal. By carefully placing the coal amongst dense, fine tinder and blowing directly onto it will cause the tinder to smoulder and eventually flame. The ancient Egyptians also used the bow drill, which uses the same principle as the hand drill, i.e. generating frictional heat by the rotation of wood on wood. It typically consists of a bearing block or handhold, a drill or spindle, a hearth-board, and a simple bow. The drill or spindle, which is about the diameter of an adult finger, is carved to reduce friction at one end and maximize it at the other. One end is located in a hole in the bottom of the bearing block or handhold, while the other is set in a carved notch the hearth-board. The string of the bow is wrapped once around the drill just tight enough that it does not slip during operation. The drill is driven by a bow, which allows longer, easier strokes and protects the palms. Additional downward pressure is generated by the handhold to increase friction.
The preparation of meat for the table and the cooking techniques employed were much the same for whatever animal, sheep, pig or ox, was to be eaten. There is no evidence for elaborate sauces or of plated meals consisting of meat and two vegetables. Meats were served with various types of bread, which would have been true for the fish and fowl eaten by the peasant or the good roast beef on the nobleman’s table.
At large meals the hosts and important guests who were sat on low chairs. Children and others used cushions or mats. In wealthier households, servants brought in the courses one by one placing them on small tables beside the diners. Dishes might include roast meat perhaps seasoned with garlic, salads, cucumber, lots of bread and sticky cakes, and plates of melon and figs. People ate with their fingers, which were rinsed in water between courses.
This piece was inspired by a presentation we gave to a local branch of the Women’s Institute. In researching the topic we learnt a great deal about the ancient Egyptian diet: the importance of bread and beer, the variety of foodstuffs that were cultivated, farming and animal husbandry, and so on. Hopefully it has been of some interest. Until next time, bon appétit!
Marks, T., (2018), ‘A sip of history: ancient Egyptian beer’, The British Museum, available online (accessed July 10th, 2023).
1. The Agricultural Revolution was the wide-scale transition of many human cultures during the Neolithic period from a lifestyle of hunting and gathering to one of agriculture and settlement, making an increasingly large population possible. These settled communities permitted humans to observe and experiment with plants, learning how they grew and developed. This new knowledge led to the domestication of plants into crops.