Bakery and brewery
The Egyptians ate a low-fat, high-fiber diet with a lot of grains. They ate a variety of plant oils and fats, bread, milk, lentils, cottage cheese, cakes, onions, meat, dates, melons, milk products, figs, ostrich eggs, almonds, peas, beans, olives, pomegranates, grapes, vegetables, honey, garlic and other foods. The Egyptians ate a variety of grains, including barely and emmer-wheat. Barley was used for making beer. Emmer wheat was used to make bead. Lentils were discovered in an Egyptian tomb dating back to 2000 B.C.).

References to candy date back to 2000 B.C. Images in tombs from the 11th dynasty depict confectionery processing taking place in temples. The treats were offered to the gods or reserved for noblemen. Around 1000 B.C., Egyptians produced hard candies made from honey, herbs, spices and citrus fruit (sugar wouldn't be available for another 2,500 years). A cake made with sesame, honey and probably milk was found in the 4,200-year-old grave of Pepionkh. It is the oldest known piece of cake.

The 4,900-year-old tomb of King Aha had three chambers and was stocked with oxen meat, waterbirds, cheese, dried figs, bread and many vessels of beer and wine for the afterlife journey. A small box found in tomb of King Tut contained 25 varieties of barely, each in its own compartment.

In ancient India and Egypt ice was sometimes derived from water set in the ground that froze due to cooling evaporation. As early as 3000 B.C., Egyptians were able to make ice in the desert by taking advantage of a natural phenomena that occurs in dry climates. Water left out at night in shallow clay trays on a bed of straw would freeze as a result of evaporation into the dry air and sudden temperatures drops even though the temperature was well above freezing.

The were reports of cannibalism in ancient China, India and Egypt associated with exotic dishes enjoyed by the aristocracy and people surviving during famines.

See Agriculture

Ancient Egyptian Bread

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carrying bread and other things
Bread was the staple of the ancient Egyptian diet, and most of it was made with barley or emmer wheat, a twin-kerneled form of grain that is very difficult to husk. Hieroglyphics have recorded 14 types of bread, including sourdough and whole wheat breads. Scholars speculate that families usually ate unleavened pita-style bread at home and ate pot-baked breads during temple festivals and special occasions. [Source: David Roberts, National Geographic, January 1995]

The ancient Egyptians grinded up grain on granite grind stones. Among the objects unearthed at Umm Mawagir (“mother of bread molds,” in Arabic)---a settlement that flourished in Egypt’s western desert more than 3,500 years ago--- was a double bread mold, one of a half-ton of bakery artifacts. The study of ancient bread has been made possible because it was the practice of ancient Egyptians to leave food and beer in their tombs for sustenance in the afterlife and the arid climate preserved those remains.

In a report published in the journal Science in 1996, Dr. Delwen Samuel, a research associate in archeology at Cambridge, described his examination with optical and electron microscopes of nearly 70 loaves of bread found among the ruins of workers' villages. Almost all of the bread was made from a type of wheat known as emmer, sometimes flavored with coriander and fig.

There is little evidence that Egyptians used modern-style wheat to make bread. Modern bread is high in gluten, which makes it light, full of air holes, and with a crispy crust. Barley and emmer wheat are low in gluten and bread made with these grains tends to heavy and dense. Wild yeast native to the areas bread was produced made the bread rise. The Egyptians were not familiar with yeast and they believe that bread rose by way of "miraculous powers. To get their bread to rise they let their dough stand for a week or so, so that it fermented like wine as well as rose.

The Egyptians made toast but they did not do it to improve the flavor or texture but to remove moisture that attracted mold. Making toast preserved the bread longer.

Making Bread in Ancient Egypt

A bakery found near the Pyramids of Giza was 17 feet long and eight feet wide. The bread was often made in molds or pottery bread pots that produced loaves in many shapes and sizes---round, flat, conical and pointed. Most bread appears to have been made on flat trays, or in bell-shaped pots (14 inches in diameter and 14 inches deep). Archaeologists also found egg-carton-like trenches. The holes held bread-baking pots and the trenches held coals that were used to bake the bread. [Source: David Roberts, National Geographic, January 1995]


The most common type of bread was made by first pouring thin cake-batter-like dough into a thick clay pot about the size of a large vase. After the dough had risen the pot was placed in a hole dug in the embers of a fire. A second pot was heated and placed on top of the first pot, and together the two pots created an "oven environment. A small sculpture from ancient Egypt shows a man rolling dough on his hands and knees.

Based on modern experiments scientists determined the bread was baked for around an hour and 40 minutes and a cone-shaped loaf of bread was removed by running a knife along the inside of the pot. The bread was heavy and as nutritious as modern store-bought bread. One of the scientist who participated in making bread described it as "sourdough bread the way it's meant to taste."

Describing the result of his effort to make bread the ancient Egyptian way, archaeologist Mark Lehner told National Geographic: "We did produce edible bread from various combinations of barely and emmer, albeit a bit too sour even for most sourdough tastes because we let he dough sit too long before baking. Each of our loaves was heavy and massive, large enough to feed several people at one meal.

Meat in Ancient Egypt

cattle cutting
Ancient Egyptians ate the meat of cattle, sheep and goats. Lots of bones from slaughtered animals have been found. Hieroglyphics show ancient Egyptians hunting ducks, antelope and a variety of wild animals and using nets to catch birds as well as fish. There are even hieroglyphics describing slaves making foie gras.

The kind of meat that people at was an indicator of their wealth and status. Veal and roast goose were regarded as treats that generally only the upper classes could enjoy. The poor ate goat and muttons if they ate any meat all.

Pigs were eaten for a time but there was a prejudice against pork associated with Seth, god of evil. Pigs are depicted at a New Kingdom (1055-1069 B.C.) temple in El Kab, south of Luxor. As time went on the ancient Egyptians distanced themselves from pigs, regarding them as unclean, and abstained from pork. Herodotus wrote “the pig is regarded among them as an unclean animal so much so that if a man passing accidently touches a pig, he instantly hurries to the river and plunges in with his clothes on.” Herodotus describes swineherds as an inbreed caste forbidden from setting foot in temples.

The Egyptians ate a lot of fish. They ate all the varieties that were found in the Nile and many from the Mediterranean. Archaeologists have found evidence e of fish processing operation, where fish were cleaned, salted and smoked. Fish was also made into sauce.

Meat mummies of an afterlife feast displayed at the Egyptian Museum include ducks, pigeons, legs of beef, roast and an oxtail for soup. They were all dried in natron, wrapped in linen and packed in a picnic basket. “Whether or not you got it regularly in life didn’t matter because you got it for eternity,” one archeologist said.

Fruits and Vegetables in Ancient Egypt

glass and bronze grapes
Onions originated in Egypt. Egyptians believed that onions symbolized the many-layered universe. They swore oaths on onions like a modern-time Bible.

Purple peas were found in the tomb of King Tut. Cucumbers were known in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. They originated in the foothills of the Himalayas in northern India, where they have been cultivated for more than 3,000 years.

Radishes were cultivated by the ancient Egyptians at least 4,000 years ago. They were eaten with onions, and garlic by workers. Egyptians believed that radishes were aphrodisiacs. Leeks were also eaten in ancient Egypt.

Melons are one the earliest crops along with wheat, barley, various legumes, grapes, dates, pistachios and almonds. Melons are native to Iran, Turkey and the western Asia. They are depicted in an Egyptian tomb painting from 2400 B.C., Greek documents from the 3rd century B.C. mention them. They were described by Pliny the Elder in the 1st century A.D.

Grape seeds have been found in 3,000-year-old mummies.

Dates, Spices and Olives in Ancient Egypt

The ancient Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans all consumed olives and olive oil. Olives were first cultivated in Palestine around 4000 B.C. and spread to Syria and Turkey and reached the ancient Egypt around 1500 B.C. (the Egyptian were using olive purchased from Palestine long before that). According to an old Egyptian saying "A date palm is the only creation of God that resembles man. Unlike other trees, a date palm gives more as it grows older."

In ancient times, olive oil was used in everything from oil lamps, to religious anointments, to cooking and preparing condiments and medicines. It was in great demand and traveled well and people like the Philistines grew rich trading it.

Egyptians flavored their food with sea salt, thyme, marjoram and essences of fruit and nuts, particularly almonds. Saffron was known in ancient Egypt. Stigmas have been found in Egyptian mummies and Cleopatra used in her cosmetics. The ancient Egyptians believed that licorice was an aphrodisiac. King Tut ate licorice root before engaging his queen.

Garlic was consumed by the ancient Egyptians and Greeks. The Romans regarded it as a food for the lower classes. The pyramid builders ate lot of onions and garlic. One of the first recorded strikes occurred when their garlic ration was reduced. A slave, records show, could be bought for seven kilograms of garlic.

Banquets and Eating Customs in Ancient Egypt

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At royal banquets, guests sat on woven mats and drank bowl after bowl of red wine and ate fish, beef, fowl and bread and honey with their fingers. Servant girls washed their hands before they carried in trays of grapes, figs and palm. Beautiful and topless dancers performed to the music of flutes, harps and bone clappers.

Recounting an Old Kingdom tale, Herodotus wrote a pharaoh"had innumerable lamps made, by the light of which he set himself every evening to drink and be merry, and never ceased day or night from the pursuit of pleasure." He had been told earlier that he had only six years to live so "his objective” was "turning night into day to extend the six remaining years of his life into twelve.”

The Egyptians, Greeks and Romans used towel-like napkins and finger bowls of water scented with things like rose petals, herbs and rosemary. The Egyptians used particular scents---orange blossom, myrrh, almond, cassia---for different courses.

Ancient Egyptian Drinks

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drinking beer
As early as 1450 B.C., depictions on wall painting from a pharaoh’s tomb show, the ancient Egyptians practiced a form of water purification. It shows one person pouring water into a vessel and another sucking on a hose apparently to get the water to go through a series filters.

Ancient people, before the ancient Egyptians, found that if they crushed grapes or warmed and moistened grain, would bubble and produce a drink with a kick. Depictions of alcohol brewing in Egypt have been found on papyrus from around 3000 B.C.

See Oldest Alcohol, Bronze Age

In 2000 B.C. an Egyptian priest told a pupil. "I, thy superior, forbid thee to go to the taverns. Thou art degraded like the beasts."

Ancient Egyptian Beer

Egyptians are regarded by some historians as the inventors of beer. Made from barley, Egyptians beer was thick and nutritious. The fermentation process added essential B vitamins and amino acids converted from yeast. According to Egyptologist Zahi Hawass, they "had five types of beer with higher alcohol content than modern brews."

Beer was perhaps the most common drink and affordable enough that ordinary people could drink it every day. Beer came jars and freshly made beer may have been consumed with straws. Many workers were buried with jars of beer so they wouldn’t be without it in the afterlife. An industrial scale beer factory dated to 3500 B.C. has been found in Hierakonpolis. Eight vats discovered there could produce 300 gallons of beer a day.

John Noble Wilford wrote in the New York Times, “Artistic depictions and written sources attest to beer's popularity in early Egypt. The elite and hoi polloi alike enjoyed beers with names like Joy Bringer, the Beautiful and Heavenly. They drank through tubes from ceramic cups and sometimes did not know when to say when. An Egyptian papyrus of 1400 B.C. warned of the dangers of loose talk "in the taverns in which they drink beer." [Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, July 26, 1996]

Scholars have not been sure how the Egyptians brewed their beer. In some temple art, it appeared that beer was made by crumbling bread into water and letting it ferment by yeast from the bread, yielding a coarse liquid swimming with chaff. But a researcher at Cambridge University in England has now examined beer residues and desiccated bread loaves from Egyptian tombs and found evidence of much more sophisticated brewing techniques in the second millennium B.C.

In a report published in the journal Science in 1996, Dr. Delwen Samuel, a research associate in archeology at Cambridge, said "the current conceptions about ancient Egyptian bread and beer making should be modified." A microscopic analysis of beer residues, she said, indicated a more elaborate brewing process, blending cooked and uncooked malt with water and producing a refined liquid free of husk. The microstructure of the residues, Dr. Samuel concluded, "is remarkably similar to that of modern cereal foods."

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In an accompanying article, Dr. Glynis Jones, a researcher at the University of Sheffield in England, who studies cereal-processing methods, said the findings were "the first real scientific evidence for the ancient brewing techniques." The study was possible because it was the practice of ancient Egyptians to leave food and beer in their tombs for sustenance in the afterlife and the arid climate preserved those remains. Dr. Samuel examined with optical and electron microscopes nearly 70 loaves of bread from several sites and beer residues from more than 200 pottery vessels found among the ruins of workers' villages.

Almost all of the bread was made from a type of wheat known as emmer, sometimes flavored with coriander and fig. Both emmer and barley -- not barley alone, as previously thought -- were used for brewing. No flavorings have been detected in the beer residues. An analysis of starch granules, in particular, showed that the Egyptians did not use lightly baked bread as the main ingredient in brewing. Instead, they seemed to use a two-part process. The grains were deliberately sprouted and heated to provide sugar and flavor. The cooking made the grain more susceptible to attack by the enzymes that convert starch into sugars. This batch was then mixed with sprouted but unheated grains in water. Yeast was added to the combination of sugar and starch in solution, and this fermented to make beer.

In 1996 Dr. Samuel and Dr. Barry Kemp, a Cambridge Egyptologist, in collaboration with a British brewery, brewed an ale according to the recipe inferred from this recent research. The beverage was slightly cloudy with a golden hue. "It does not taste like any beer I've ever tried before," Dr. Samuel said. "It's very rich, very malty and has a flavor that reminds you a little of chardonnay."

Ancient Egyptian Wine

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collecting grapes
Ancient Egyptian wine was made from a domesticated species of grape, Vitis vinifera vinifera . Early wine is believed to have been fermented by natural yeasts that blooms on the grape's skin. Some of it was sweetened with figs. Some of the best wines were produced in the Bahariya Oasis.

Patrick McGovern, and ancient wine expert and scientific director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, said in ancient Egypt "you have illustrations inside the tombs showing how many jars of beer and wine from the Nile Delta are to be provided to the dead." New Kingdom tomb reliefs and paintings depicts rows of wine jars used in royal celebrations and elaborate wine cellars and storehouses in palaces and temples at Amarna and Thebes. The Great Papyrus Harris, one of the longest and best preserved manuscripts from ancient Egypt, shows Ramses III (1184-1153 B.C.) boasting of presenting 59,588 jars of wine to the chief Egyptian deity, Amun, at his temple in Thebes.

Much of ancient Egypts wine appears to have been imported from the Jordan valley. Wine found in Abydos, dated to 3000 B.C., was produced in produced in the Jordan Valley and had evidence of an ancient customs seal.

Scorpion King Medicinal Wine

Researchers unearthed a collection of dozens of imported ceramic jars with a yellow residue consistent with wine in the tomb of Egyptian king Scorpion I, dated about 3150 BC, 1,000 years later than the Areni find. Grape seeds, grape skins and dried pulp also were found in the Egyptian tomb.

wine press
A tomb dated to 3150 B.C. of an Egyptian king, who may have been known as Scorpion I, contained three rooms full of 700 jars of wine, stacked up there or four levels. The jars contained grape pips. It was was reasoned they contained wine not grape juice or vinegar because grape juice (without modern preservatives) turns to wine very quickly in room temperature and the jars were sealed, which prevents it from becoming vinegar. Infrared spectrometry identified residues of alcohols, tannins, flavonals, aldehydes, acids, carbohydrates, esters, proteins and vitamins found in wine.

Brian Handwerk wrote in National Geographic News, “Deep inside the tomb of Scorpion I (no relation to the Rock), scientists discovered Egypt's oldest wines. And now it appears the 5,000-year-old wines were spiked with natural medicines---centuries before the practice was thought to exist in Egypt, researchers say. [Source: Brian Handwerk, National Geographic News, April 13, 2009, based on findings published in the journal PNAS. ]

Archaeochemist Patrick McGovern and colleagues found chemical residues of herbs, tree resins, and other natural substances inside wine jars from the tomb, the previously discovered resting place of one of Egypt's first pharaohs (ancient Egypt time line).While the additives may have been flavorful, they were picked for their medical benefits, said McGovern, of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Scorpion king
The early Egyptians "were living in a world without modern synthetic medicines, and they were very aware of the benefits that natural additives can have---especially if dissolved into an alcoholic medium, like wine or beer," which breaks down plant alkaloids.

Papyrus records from as long ago as 1850 B.C. detail how such medicinal tipples were made to treat a range of ailments. "Now this chemical evidence pushes that date back another 1,500 years," McGovern said. Scorpion I's wines predate the advent of Egyptian vineyards and were imports from the Jordan River valley. The wines suggest that imports from the southeastern Mediterranean contributed to the Egyptian pharmacopoeia, which laid the groundwork for Greek and Roman medical traditions.

The wine find is just one of several from ancient Egypt, China, and elsewhere that document ancient medicinal mixology. "Over thousands of years, humans were searching their environment and trying to find natural medicinal materials," McGovern said. "They were tested empirically over generations, but then many were lost."

Wine vessel with mask
of god Bes
Now, collaborating with researchers at Penn Medicine's Abramson Cancer Center, McGovern's team is using biomolecular analysis to uncover the ancient wine-medicine recipes and hopefully put them to the test. "We're trying to rediscover why ancient people thought these particular herbs were medically useful," he said, "and seeing if they are effective for the treatment of cancer or other modern diseases."

Ancient Egyptian Drugs

The Egyptians and Sumerians were probably using opium 4,000 years ago. There are references in Egyptian hieroglyphics to poppy extract being used to quiet crying children. The oldest known opium cultivators were people who lived around a Swiss lake in the forth millennium B.C.

The Egyptians took opium for pleasure and as a sedative. There are references in Egyptian hieroglyphics to opium poppy extract being used to quiet crying children.

Ceramic jugs, dated to 1,500 B.C., shaped like an opium capsules and containing stylized incisions were unearthed in Cyprus and believed to have held opium dissolved in wine that was traded with Egypt. Ivory pipes, over 3,200 years old and thought to have been used for smoking opium, were found in a Cyprus temple. Some tools found in Egypt may have been used for opium, but there is no firm evidence.

Cannabis was used by the ancient Egyptians to make rope. It may have also been consumed for pleasure or for medicine. Traces of THC (the active ingredient in cannabis) have been identified in an Egyptian mummy dated to 950 B.C.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum, The Egyptian Museum in Cairo

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2012

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