Ancient Egyptian food: from both Africa and West Asia
Because Egypt is in Africa, but very close to West Asia, what people ate in ancient Egypt was midway between African and West Asian food. Wheat, barley, and olive oil all originally came from West Asia.
Bread and beer
Egyptian bakers used both wheat and barley to make bread and soup and porridge (like oatmeal). They also fermented barley to make beer.
Very likely the Egyptians first started growing grain in order to make beer. They only later figured out that you could make bread with it too.
In ancient Egypt, bakeries were often around the back of breweries, so they could share the yeast. This is an Egyptian model of beer jars: Egyptians put these models in your grave when you died so you would have beer in the next world.
Did ancient Egyptians eat falafel?
Nobody knows when exactly people started to eat falafel, but it probably started in Egypt, and very long ago. Falafel is a very fuel-efficient way to cook beans. Normally, boiling beans requires a long time – hours – and a lot of fuel to keep the fire going so long.
But if you soak raw beans in water for a day, and then crush the soaked beans into small bits using a grindstone, then you can make them into little patties like burgers and fry them quickly over a small fire. A little charcoal brazier will do it. Now you have a delicious, quick meal, with plenty of protein, and cheap too!
Egyptians ate mainly fava beans, but also chickpeas and lentils. You can make falafel out of any kind of beans. If you cook chickpeas and mash them with crushed sesame seeds, then you have hummus, which is also delicious with falafel and pita bread!
Vegetables in ancient Egypt
Onions, leeks, and garlic were very popular in ancient Egypt. People also ate a lot of cabbage, kale and chard. They had lettuce and raw radishes for their salads, and boiled turnips and parsnips in their soup. Ancient Egyptians ate green peas, but not so much fresh as dried like for split pea soup. They also ate cucumbers, which came originally from India, and artichokes, which were local. They ate celery, and probably celery root.
Fish from the Nile River
Egyptian food also included a lot of fish. People in Egypt ate a lot of fish from the Nile River, like tilapia and perch. They also went fishing in boats, in the Mediterranean Sea, for larger fish like tuna. They ate fish fresh, and also preserved. They made fermented fish sauces (kind of like ketchup) and dried fish and salted fish.
Lamb and beef
You could go to a butcher shop and buy lamb there, just as people do today, or a duck or goose. Only because it rarely rains in Egypt, they could have the meat outside in the courtyard of the store instead of inside. Here is a model of a butcher shop, also from somebody’s grave. Can you see the different cuts of meat all laid out? At the very bottom there is a whole leg of mutton.
Egyptians stop eating pork
In the Old Kingdom, they ate pork, too. From the New Kingdom on, though, most rich people in Egypt would not eat pork, because they thought pigs were dirty and yucky (Poor people still ate pork though).
– and start to eat chicken
To replace the pork fat in their cooking, Egyptians invented foie gras. Then about 300 BC, when Greek kings were ruling Egypt, Egyptians started to eat a lot of chicken and eggs. The Egyptians got chickens from the Persians in Iran.
Egyptian scientists figured out a way to use artificial incubators to make chicken cheap enough to be affordable. Then they could raise a lot of chickens to eat, without having to feed a lot of hens to sit on the eggs.
Palm oil, watermelon, and other African foods
What did Egyptian people eat for dessert?
For dessert, they liked to eat dates and figs. Egyptian food also included sweet bread with honey. Ancient Egypt is probably the first place where people kept bees instead of going out and looking for honey in wild beehives.
By about 2400 BC, Egyptian beekeepers were using clay pots as beehives and collecting honey from there. Hundreds of enslaved Egyptians worked on huge honey farms with thousands of beehives. That made honey cheap enough so most people could have it when they wanted it.
People liked to eat fruit too. Mostly they ate doum palm fruits, dates, and figs. But by the New Kingdom there were also a few apple trees in Egypt.
Above, there is a picture of some real doum palm fruits which were put into somebody’s grave; they were traditional funeral offerings in ancient Egypt. The dry climate preserved them for three thousand years until archaeologists dug them up again.
Learn by doing – A project with figs
More about the history of beer
Cooking an Egyptian meal
Go on to medieval Islamic food