Eat Like an Egyptian

An article by Stephanie Butler publised on
history.com october 2013
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Archeological discoveries have told us much about how ancient Egyptians worshiped, celebrated and mourned. But these scientific finds have also provided tantalizing clues about how–and what–this complex civilization ate. From grains like emmer and kamut to cloudy beer and honey-basted gazelle, this week’s Hungry History focuses on the meals of ancient Egypt.

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Bread and beer were the two staples of the Egyptian diet. Everyone from the highest priest to the lowliest laborer would eat these two foods every day, although the quality of the foods for the priest would undoubtedly be higher. The main grain cultivated in Egypt was emmer. Better known today as farro, emmer happens to be a fairly well balanced source of nutrition: it’s higher in minerals and fiber than similar grains. Breads and porridge were made from the grain, as well as a specially devised product that modern-day archeologists call “beer bread.”

Eat Like an Egyptian_02Beer bread was made from dough that used more yeast than normal breads, and it was baked at a temperature that didn’t kill off the yeast cultures. Brewers crumbled the bread into vats and let it ferment naturally in water. This yielded a thick and cloudy brew that would probably disgust our modern palates. But it was also nourishing and healthy, and filled in many nutritive deficiencies of the lower-class diet.

But ancient Egyptians did not survive on carbohydrates alone: Hunters could capture a variety of wild game, including hippos, gazelles, cranes as well as smaller species such as hedgehogs. Fish were caught, then salted and preserved; in fact fish curing was so important to Egyptians that only temple officials were allowed to do it. Honey was prized as a sweetener, as were dates, raisins and other dried fruits. Wild vegetables abounded, like celery, papyrus stalks and onions.

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Although no recipes from the times remain, we have a fair idea of how the Egyptians prepared their food thanks to dioramas and other objects left in tombs. Laborers ate two meals a day: a morning meal of bread, beer and often onions, and a more hearty dinner with boiled vegetables, meat and more bread and beer. Nobles ate well, with vegetables, meat and grains at every meal, plus wine and dairy products like butter and cheese. Priests and royalty ate even better. Tombs detail meals of honey-roasted wild gazelle, spit-roasted ducks, pomegranates and a berry-like fruit called jujubes with honey cakes for dessert. To top it all off, servant girls would circulate with jugs of wine to refill empty glasses: the perfect end to an Egyptian banquet.

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Medieval Monday – Almond Milk / Mandelmelk

A staple medieval recipe found on mediumaevum.tumblr.com
Medieval Monday - Almond Milk / Mandelmelk

Almond milk was a staple of the medieval kitchen. It was used in a wide variety of dishes as a substitute for milk or cream, especially on “fish days”, when the church placed restrictions on what foods could be eaten (the most prominent of which were the days during lent). Fortunately, almond milk is quick and easy to make.

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Grilling Tips from the Ancient Greeks

Article by Stephanie Butler posted on history.com in 2014

Love to grill? Well, you’re not the first. In fact, the Greeks beat us all to it by more than 3,000 years. Recently, archeologist Julie Hruby of Dartmouth College presented her research findings about how exactly the ancient Greeks used their grills at the Archeological Institute of America’s annual conference in Chicago. Hruby’s research centered on her work with ancient souvlaki trays and griddles from Mycenaean-era sites in Greece.

Souvlaki tray
Souvlaki tray

In years past, everyday objects like cooking pots were often thrown away at architectural sites, in favor of more glamorous items like vases or jewelry. But Hruby decided to take a second look at the trays and griddles to help solve some long-standing archeological mysteries. For starters, scientists knew the souvlaki trays would have somehow held skewers of roasting meat. But they didn’t know if cooks rested the meat directly on the trays over the fire, or if the trays were meant for hot coals with the meat placed on top. And the griddles, presumably for bread baking, had one smooth side and one side pocked with small holes. What would be best for baking?

To solve these problems, Hruby turned to an unlikely source: ceramicist Connie Podleski at the Oregon College of Art and Craft. Hruby and Podleski mixed their own American clay to imitate the rough, gritty Mycenaean clay. They then fashioned new souvlaki trays and griddles to the exact specifications of the originals, and put them to the test over an open fire.

Griddles
Griddles

The results of this ingenious experiment answered all the scholars’ questions. When meat skewers were placed directly on the trays over the fire, the thickness of the tray resulted in uncooked souvlaki. A much tastier result occurred when hot coals were shoveled onto the trays, and the skewers placed directly above. Essentially, according to Hruby, the trays were portable barbeque pits, “perhaps used during Mycenaean picnics.” As for the griddles, Hruby found that baking bread stuck much more readily to the smooth sides of the utensil than the hole-marked side. This led her to believe that the rough surface could have served as a primitive nonstick pan, as the holes also result in a more even dispersion of oil across the cooking surface.