Egypt and the Gift of the Nile

Food: A Cultural Culinary History—Episode 03

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Ancient Egypt’s prosperity, impressive court culture, and their isolation from conflict led to a sophisticated food tradition and the emergence of the world’s first “elite” cuisine. In this podcast we’ll study the archaeological evidence of Ancient Egyptian food customs, the religious significance of Egyptian foodstuffs and animals, and the specific components of their cuisine.

Images for this Episode:

Culinary Activities for this Episode:

• Egyptian Beer

Barley sprouting

Sophisticated archaeological techniques that have been developed in the past few decades have allowed researchers not only to identify vessels that stored beer in ancient times, but they also can identify exact ingredients as well. Patrick McGovern at the University of Pennsylvania is the best-known biomolecular archaeologist of ancient drinks, and he has even worked with breweries to develop modern versions. Although they taste quite good, they use modern strains of yeast and brewing protocols that are very different from ancient practice. These are the dictates of modern regulations and the demands of commerce—but at home, you can brew exactly as the ancients did, using wild yeast and simple pottery vessels. Be prepared, though, it will not taste like your standard fizzy lager.

First, you will need barley, which must be whole, fresh, and not pearled, which kills the seed. You are going to germinate the grains by sprinkling on some water, leaving it in a sunny spot, and waiting until they just begin to sprout. Turn them around every now and then, drain off the liquid, and replace it if it begins to smell a bit. They should stay moist during germination. This should only take a few days. Once you see them sprout, dry them off, and place them in the sun to dry completely. If you want a darker brew, toast a few of the grains gently and add to the rest. Then, break everything up in a large mortar. You want small pieces, but not powder. Next, heat the grain in water at about 140 degrees, and maintain that temperature for an hour. Strain this into another pot, and pour some more hot water over just to release the last bit of sugars in the mash. Now is the fun part. Cover the pot with a cheesecloth, and let it ferment at room temperature. Wild yeasts will invade, and it will start to bubble in a few days. Taste it periodically; it will probably be a little sour, thick, and of course still room temperature. That’s ancient beer—fairly low in alcohol but refreshing. If you insist, strain it again, funnel into bottles, and refrigerate.

Suggested Reading:

Darby, Food: The Gift of Osiris.

Mehdawy, The Pharaoh’s Kitchen.

Rivera, The Pharaoh’s Feast.

Images courtesy of:

• Map of Ancient Egypt: By Jeff Dahl GFDLCC BY-SA 3.0,via Wikimedia Commons
• Tutankhamun and Ankhesenamun: Andreas Praefcke (Own work (own photograph)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Hieroglyphic artwork of Egyptians farming: James Wasserman; facsimile made by E. A. Wallis Budge; original artist unknown [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Animal sacrifice to the gods: [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
• Herodotus: © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons
• Emmer: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
• Egyptian food jars: By Daderot (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
• Barley: Shutterstock
• Tandoor oven: Shutterstock
• Saddle quern: By Claire H. CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
• Egyptian paiinting of cattle: By Deutsch: Maler der Grabkammer des Sennudem English: Painter of the burial chamber of Sennedjem [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

• Hathor: By Bernard Gagnon (Own work) GFDL CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons 
• Milk maid statue: Photograph by Rama, Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-2.0-fr , via Wikimedia Commons
• Apis Bull: Photographed by Michael Holford. Original artist unknown. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Ebers Papyrus CC BY 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
• Ramses III: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Papyrus plant: Shutterstock