We are all familiar with archaeological sites unearthing Egyptian statues and artifacts that tell us how the ancients lived and worshipped. However, food is also an important part of any culture and we know more about how ancient Egyptians ate now than at any other time in history.
Egyptian cuisine today is not much different than what was eaten before. The selection of food and drink chosen then widely depended on the location. Egypt’s location in northern Africa made it ideal for trading with the Middle East which made for an interesting mix of culinary influences. In spite of the large, arid desert, the lands close to the river Nile provided fertile soil for farming. Celery, garlic, beans, peas, nuts, lentils, lettuce, figs, grapes and melons were grown in the region.
Bread and beer were two staples in the ancient Egyptian diet, regardless of class. Wheat and barley were dietary staples and cooks made bread out of these grains. Emmer, now called farro, was also a main grain that was cultivated. Breads and porridge were made from emmer and it made what archaeologists call “beer bread.”
Ancient Egyptians didn’t live on bread alone though. Wild game like hippopotami, gazelles, and cranes were captured by hunters for the upper class to eat. Fish were caught and preserved with salt. Fish curing was such an important task that only temple officials conducted this task. Honey, dates, raisins and dried fruits were prized sweeteners.
No recipes remain from those ancient times, but thanks to dioramas and hieroglyphics, we have a fair idea of how Egyptians prepared their food. Laborers ate twice a day; breakfast was bread, beer and onions and dinner consisted of meat, boiled vegetables, and more bread and beer. The upper class had access to more options with vegetables, meat, grains, butter, cheese, and wine. Priests and royalty ate even better. Tombs depict honey-roasted gazelles, jujubes (a berry-like fruit), pomegranates and honey cakes. Dishes were flavored with spices like mustard, salt, coriander, honey, and dill.
Today, there is much more to Egyptian food than falafel, shawarma, and kofta. In order to truly appreciate Egyptian food, visitors must dig deeper and they will find traditions and flavors that reach back to ancient times.
Throughout the Egyptian countryside, curious structures are sprinkled across the land that look like the Daleks from Doctor Who. These actually house pigeons, regarded as a delicacy. The bird’s cavity is stuffed with freekeh, a cracked green wheat or bulgur and grilled over charcoal. With lots of little bones, it is fiddly to eat, but this doesn’t deter the Egyptians from saying hamam mahshi is one of their finest dishes.
This glutinous, dark green stew made from the jute mallow plant leaves, has been around since pharaohs roamed the earth. The name, Molokhiyya (also often spelled ‘Molokhia’ or ‘Molokheya’) means, ‘royal.’ The stew is made from slow cooking the leaves with butter-fried coriander, and garlic. For a heartier meal, rabbit or chicken is added. This dish does divide foreigners – you either love it or hate it.
Kushari (also Koshari) rivals molokhiyya as Egypt’s national dish. This popular street food is a carbohydrate overload. Macaroni, rice, lentils, chickpeas doused with tomato sauce and sprinkled with fried onions and glugs of garlicky vinegar makes for a moreish bowl. Kushari is a relatively new dish on the Egyptian culinary scene and is proof of Egypt’s colonial influences. The dish’s roots are close to an Indian dish of rice and lentils called khichdi. Egypt and India were both under British control. The local Italian community added pasta to the dish and the recipe evolved as cooks padded it the sauces, legumes, and onions.
There’s a wide variety of Egyptian foods to enjoy. So the next time you’re ordering in, try something new from an ancient culture.