What Did the Ancient Egyptians Eat?

Sennofer worked for Amenhotep II as a supervisor of the gardens of the Temple of Amun.
Sennofer worked for Amenhotep II as a supervisor of the gardens of the Temple of Amun. Vines and grapes on the ceiling. CC Flickr User kudumomo.

Among the ancient civilizations, Egyptians enjoyed better foods than most did, thanks to the presence of the Nile River flowing through most of settled Egypt, fertilizing the land with periodic flooding and providing a source of water for irrigating crops and watering livestock. The proximity of Egypt to the Middle East made trade easy, and hence Egypt enjoyed foodstuffs from foreign countries as well, and their cuisine was heavily influenced by outside eating habits.

 

The diet of the ancient Egyptians depended on their social position and wealth. Tomb paintings, medical treatises, and archaeology reveal a variety of foods. Peasants and slaves would, of course, eat a limited diet, including the staples of bread and beer, complemented by dates, vegetables, and pickled and salted fish, but the wealthy had a much larger range to choose from. For wealthy Egyptians, available food choices were easily as broad as they are for many people in the modern world.  

Grains

Barley, spelt or emmer wheat provided the basic material for bread, which was leavened by sourdough or yeast. Grains were mashed and fermented for beer, which was not so much a recreational drink as a means of creating safe beverage from river waters that were not always clean. Ancient Egyptians consumed a great deal of beer, mostly brewed from barley. 

The annual flooding of plains alongside the Nile and other rivers made the soils quite fertile for growing grain crops, and the rivers themselves were channeled with irrigation ditches to water crops and sustain domestic animals.

In ancient times, the Nile River Valley, especially the upper delta region, was by no means a desert landscape. 

Wine

Grapes were grown for wine. Grape cultivation was adopted from other parts of the Mediterranean in about 3,000 BCE, with Egyptians modifying practices to their local climate. Shade structures were commonly used, for example, to protect grapes from the intense Egyptian sun.

Ancient Egyptian wines were primarily reds and were probably used mostly for ceremonial purposes for the upper classes. Scenes carved in ancient pyramids and temples show scenes of wine-making. For common people, beer was a more typical drink. 

Fruit and Vegetables

Vegetables cultivated and consumed by ancient Egyptians included onions, leeks, garlic and lettuce. Legumes included lupines, chickpeas, broad beans, and lentils. Fruit included melon, fig, date, palm coconut, apple, and pomegranate. The carob was used medicinally and, perhaps, for food.

Animal Protein

Animal protein was a less common food for ancient Egyptians than it is for most modern consumers. Hunting was somewhat rare, though it was pursued by commoners for sustenance and by the wealthy for sport.  Domesticated animals, including oxen, sheep, goats and swine, provided dairy products, meat and by-products, with blood from sacrificial animals used for blood sausages, and beef and pork fat used for cooking. Pigs, sheep and goats provided most meat consumed; beef was considerably more expensive and was consumed by commoners only for celebratory or ritual meals. Beef was eaten more regularly by royalty. 

Fish caught in the Nile River provided an important source of protein for poor people, and was eaten less frequently by the weathy, who had greater access to domesticated pigs, sheep and goats.

 

There is also evidence the poorer Egyptians consumed rodents, such as mice and hedgehogs, in recipes calling for them to be baked.

Geese, ducks, quail, pigeons, and pelicans were available as fowl, and their eggs were also eaten. Goose fat was also used for cooking. Chickens, however, seem to have not been present in ancient Egypt until the 4th or 5th centuries BCE. 

Oils and Spices

Oil was derived from ben-nuts. There were also sesame, linseed and castor oils. Honey was available as a sweetener, and vinegar may have been also been used. Seasonings included salt, juniper, aniseed, coriander, cumin, fennel, fenugreek and poppyseed.

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Gill, N.S. "What Did the Ancient Egyptians Eat?" ThoughtCo, Jul. 6, 2017, thoughtco.com/foods-in-ancient-egypt-118392. Gill, N.S. (2017, July 6). What Did the Ancient Egyptians Eat? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/foods-in-ancient-egypt-118392 Gill, N.S. "What Did the Ancient Egyptians Eat?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/foods-in-ancient-egypt-118392 (accessed May 23, 2018).