Sunday, October 14, 2007

Ancient Egyptian cuisine Meals
Food could be prepared by stewing, baking, boiling, grilling, frying or roasting and spices and herbs were added for flavor, though the former were expensive imports and therefore confined to the tables of the wealthy. Food such as meats was mostly preserved by salting, and dates and raisins could be dried for extensive storage. The staples bread and beer were usually prepared in the same locations, as the yeast used for bread was also used for brewing. The two were prepared either in special bakeries or, more often, at home, and any surplus would be sold.

Food preparation
The predynastic cuisine differed from later eating habits due to changes in climate. Egypt went from being a lush region to a dryer climate. Initially, there was plenty of game such as antelope, gazelle, hippo, crocodile, ostrich, waterfowl and fresh and salt water fish. Smaller game like wild ass, sheep, goats, wild cattle and even hyenas were eaten. However, by dynastic times (around 3000 BC) the availability of game had decreased considerably and was by then primarily a sport of the affluent, even though small game often would supplement the diet of the poor. The New Kingdom was a period with innovations in diet due to foreign trade and warfare. Pomegranates were introduced and almonds were imported. It is also possible that apples and apricots were imported on a small scale, and by Greco-Roman times quinces, pears, plums, peaches, filbert, walnut, pine nut and pistachios were introduced.
Honey was the primary sweetener, but was rather expensive, and bees were kept in pottery hives. A cheaper alternative would have been dates or carob. There was even a hieroglyph (nedjem/bener) depicting a carob pod that bore the primary meaning of "sweet; pleasant". Oils would be made from lettuce or radish seed, safflower, ben, balanos and sesame. Animal fat was employed for cooking and jars used for storing it have been found in many settlements.

Egyptian bread was made almost exclusively from emmer wheat, which was more difficult to turn into flour when compared most other varieties of wheat. The chaff does not come off through threshing, but comes in spikelets that needed to be removed by moistening and pounding with a pestle to avoid crushing the grains inside. It was then dried in the sun, winnowed and sieved and finally milled on a saddle quern, which functioned by moving the grindstone back and forth, rather than with a rotating motion. The baking techniques varied over time. In the Old Kingdom, heavy pottery molds were filled with dough and then set in the embers to bake. During the Middle Kingdom tall cones were used on square hearths. In the New Kingdom a new type of a large open-topped clay oven, cylindrical in shape was used, which was encased in thick mud bricks and mortar. Dough was then slapped on the heated inner wall and peeled off when done. Tombs from the New Kingdom show images of bread in many different shapes and sizes. Loaves shaped like human figures, fish, various animals and fans, all of varying dough texture. Flavorings used for bread included coriander seeds and dates, but it is not known if this was ever used by the poor.

Bread and beer
Vegetables were eaten as a complement to the ubiquitous beer and bread, and the most common were long-shooted green scallions and garlic and both also had medical uses. There was also lettuce, celery (eaten raw or used to flavor stews), certain types of cucumber and, perhaps, some types of Old World gourds and even melons. By Roman-Greco times there were turnips, but it is not certain if they were available before that period. Various tubers of sedges, including papyrus were eaten raw, boiled, roasted or ground into flour and were rich in nutrients. Tiger nut (Cyperus esculentus) was used to make a dessert made from the dried and ground tubers mixed with honey. Lotus and similar flowering aquatic plants could be eaten raw or turned into flour, and both root and stem were edible. A number of pulses and legumes such as peas, beans, lentils and chickpeas were vital sources of protein. Olives were eaten raw or pickled, but there has been no evidence of olive oil before the Greco-Roman period.
The most common fruit were dates and there were also figs, grapes (and raisins), dom palm nuts (eaten raw or steeped to make juice), certain species of Persea and nabk berries (a species of the genus Ziziphus).

Fruit and vegetables
Meat came from domesticated animals, game and poultry. This possibly included partridge, quail, pigeon, ducks and geese. The chicken most likely arrived around the 5th to 4th century BC, though no chicken bones have actually been found dating from before the Greco-Roman period. The most important animals were cattle, sheep, goats and pigs (previously thought to have been taboo to eat). Beef was generally more expensive and would at most have been available once or twice a week, and then mostly for the royalty. Mutton and pork were more common. Poultry, both wild and domestic and fish were available to all but the most destitute. The alternative protein sources would rather have been legumes, eggs, cheese and the amino acids available in the tandem staples of bread and beer. Mice and hedgehogs were also eaten and a common way to cook the latter was to encase a hedgehog in clay and bake it. When the clay was then cracked open and removed, it took the prickly spikes with it.

Dill, fenugreek, parsley, thyme, white and black cumin, fennel, marjoram and mint are all native to Egypt and were used in cooking in ancient times. Both cinnamon and pepper were imported from the New Kingdom and onwards.

Herbs and spices
Wine from grapes, dates and figs were available, but were expensive and something reserved for the elite.


The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt (2001) Donald B. Redford, editor in chief, ISBN 0-19-510234-7

No comments: