Culinary – Egyptians

My story continues …

What I am telling you is that we Egyptians have been around a lot longer than supposed and as such have developed a broader range of foods than other civilisations around us. The pig is our favourite food and we take poultry as a delicacy, that is those birds we call ducks, geese, pidgeons, quail.

You may already know the geography here, so having a large delta at the top of our land is the reason we have been able to progress agriculture, the river Nile flowing from Nubia through our lands and across the delta to the Mediterranean Sea.

The rich fertile plains of the delta have been our success story. Areas away from the river have had to manage on cereals, vegetables and pulses, for these poorer people life expectancy is about 30 years. Any still alive after this will likely be suffering with arthrosclerosis or heart disease.

For the rich, game hunting in the delta and the desert oasis is one way to get meat on the table. And fish is freshest from the delta too. Eggs are also collected from wild birds in the marshes. Poor people do sometimes eat meat, commonly oxen and fowl. Many temples rear animals for the gods and to feed the temple staff and some food is given up for the poor.

The cow being a sacred animal is only eaten by the temple priests. On the other hand priests are forbidden to eat fish, having some dubious notion that fish are unclean, but fish are extremely popular and plentiful here, as long as you live near the Nile. As far as trade goes there is a lucrative business in dried and salted fish.

Small birds are salted and eaten raw whereas the other meats and fish are boiled or roasted. The heat here means food needs to be eaten as soon as possible or preserved with salt. It really is a simple case of eating well if you are rich and just having a carbohydrate diet if you are poor. The poor might also eat cheese.

For fruit we have dates, grapes, pomegranates, watermelon and peaches. For beverage we have beer brewed from barley and the rich consume wine. Milk is the non-alcoholic alternative. Although I am painting a picture that the poor do not eat well, I am talking nutrtitionally.

If we are talking about the amounts of food people eat then even the poor have their fill, it is rare for people to starve to death and in the regions away from the Nile, where mostly carbohydrates are consumed in the form of cereals, we have an obesity problem. This is something I’m told happens with all advanced civilisations.

Food: Breads, beer, fish and vegetables:

Cereal foods formed the main backbone of the Egyptian diet from the predynastic period onward. Consequently there was a rich variety of different breads and beers. Because of the crude utensils used to make bread, quartz, felspar, mica, ferro magnesium minerals and other foreign bodies, including germs were almost always present in the flour. The staple food was bread, beer and fish supplemented by onions or other vegetables.

Wheat was made into bread which was one of the main foods eaten by both rich and poor ancient Egyptians. Bread loaves were made of coarse grain which they called cyllestis. First the grain was made into flour. It was then made into dough with water and yeast which was placed into a clay mould before being cooked in a stone oven.

Beverage was made from barley, as there were no vines in the land, therefore a lot of beer was brewed. Beer was consumed by all regardless of class, and flavoured with dates.

Fish that wasn’t eaten raw was sun dried or preserved with salt brine. However availability was for the priviliged few. Meat was more available and would be consumed at festive times or at festivals.

A wide variety of vegetables were both cultivated and imported for domestic consumption and were the main diet for most poor people. Vegetables included onions, peas, leeks, lettuce, chickpeas, cabbage, radish, turnip, tomatoes, cucumber, celery and beans; among the popularly grown and consumed vegetables. Fruit included grapes, pomegranates, dates and plums.

People supplimented their diet with wild fruit and roots. The calorific intake was sufficient for most of the population. Malnutrition was not unknown but the population as a whole could be described as bordering on the obese.

Egyptian Soldiers

The Majority of soliders were press ganged. Egyptian soldiers could be prisoners of war from previous battles. Some signed up voluntary from the upper class to be officers much in the same way as every other civilisation before and since the Egyptians. Either way the Egyptian warrior was trained in various battle skills that were considered by the king and the nobles to be important.

Egypt was considered to be a peaceful place for most of its history but its army and navy were always in a state of readiness. In the Greco-Roman era Egyptians served in the Roman legions. Whether Ancient Egyptian or Greco-Roman, Egypt’s army has always been highly organised and disciplined.

Daily Nutrition

A French research team figured out that by looking at the carbon atoms in mummies that had lived in Egypt between 3500 BCE and 600 AD you could find out what they ate. All carbon atoms are taken in by plants from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by the process of photosynthesis. By eating plants, and the animals that had eaten plants, the carbon ends up in our bodies.

The study confirmed that ancient egyptians were mainly vegetarians. Remember that meat was usually the preserve of nomadic peoples. Settlers began agriculture and therefore had a grain, vegetable and fruit diet, at least during the period between agriculture and farming. The study found their diet was wheat and barley based.

There is so much depiction of fish in Egyptian wall reliefs of both spear and net fishing that it was a bit of a surprise that the isotopes in the study should suggest that fish was not widely consumed.

Poorer Egyptians relied on small household gardens and small game brought in by hunting to supplement their diet, and ate choicer meat infrequently at festivals. They also consumed papyrus roots or other edible marsh vegetation. Wealthier Egyptians were able to hunt as a leisure activity, and consumed domesticated oxen although they were usually too expensive to raise.

Before Ancient Egypt developed its agricultural knowledge (circa 5500 BCE), they were hunters-gatherers, and proximity along the Nile afforded an abundance of wild animals such as antelope, pigs, oryx, hyena and cattle. The cattle were domesticated. Hunting and meat became more associated with the wealthier classes and the poorer obtained protein less from meat but more from the dairy range of goats and sheep./p>

Pork does not appear to be eaten much, pigs do not appear in food paimtings but they do appear in rituali offerings such as seen on a list in the temple of Ramses III. It could also be due to the jews in Egypt. History tells that they were expelled in biblical times and Moses led them away. However it is more likely that jews saturated Egypt to a parasitic level whichc caused the Egyptians to rise against the common enemy. Pigs are deemed to be unclean by the jews, whereas in higher Egyptian society it was merely ‘grains’ that were regarded as unclean foodstuff.

Harvesting wheat that made most of the population obese.

Ancient Egyptian soldier’s letter home
Discovered in 1899 and translated 2011

Mostly written in Greek it is thought this is by Aurelios Polion who served in a Roman legion stationed somewhere in Europe. Polion wrote to his brother, sister and family, saying that he had not heard from them for a long time, and was starting to worry about them. Part of the translation is below.

“I pray that you are in good health night and day, and I always make obeisance before all the gods on your behalf. I do not cease writing to you, but you do not have me in mind. But I do my part writing to you always and do not cease bearing you (in mind) and having you in my heart. But you never wrote to me concerning your health, how you are doing. I am worried about you because although you received letters from me often, you never wrote back to me so that I may know how you (are),” the letter says, according.

“I sent six letters to you. The moment you have me in mind, I shall obtain leave from the consular [commander], and I shall come to you so that you may know that I am your brother. For I demanded nothing from you for the army, but I fault you because although I write to you, none of you (?) … has consideration. Look, your (?) neighbor … I am your brother.”