Food for the afterlife
This wooden model of brewers and butchers was found in the tomb of a wealthy official named Sebekhetepi. This model and another representing a granary had been placed there to make sure that Sebekhetepi would be supplied with food and drink in the afterlife.
Egypt’s fertile soil and abundant wildlife encouraged population growth, and in time producing enough food to support the people became the main responsibility of its rulers. This was not a straightforward matter: a successful harvest depended on the height of the Nile flood, which could vary dramatically from year to year. In a good year, the harvests were big enough to feed everyone and even leave some foodstuffs for export, but a bad year could mean famine and starvation. The main food crops were wheat and barley, which provided bread and beer, the Egyptian dietary basics.
Bread and beer
Most people made their own bread and beer, but palaces and temples had large kitchens to cater for the entire household. Flour was made by grinding the grain between two stones; it was then mixed into dough with water and leavening and shaped into loaves. The loaves were either left in the sun or in warm moulds to rise, then baked in a clay oven. There were many different kinds of bread, and dates or honey were sometimes added to make sweet cakes.
Beer was made from the same raw materials, by adding bits of partly-baked dough to vats of water and leaving it to ferment. When the beer was ready, it was strained into jars. Although there was plenty of fresh water to drink, most people – children included – seem to have preferred beer, which in fact contained very little alcohol. Wealthy Egyptians could also enjoy wine made from grapes, which were trodden, then squeezed in a cloth to extract the juice. Just like modern wine bottles, jars of wine were labelled to say where the wine was grown, whose vineyard it came from and when it was made.
The Egyptian diet
Grapes and other fruit, such as dates, figs and pomegranates, were enjoyed as part of a healthy diet that also included plenty of vegetables. Salad vegetables included lettuces, cucumbers and spring onions, while peas, beans and lentils were dried for storage, then cooked in stews flavoured with leeks and onions. Herbs like mint, thyme and oregano were used to add flavour, along with spices such as cumin, coriander and aniseed. Dried fruits, almonds and sesame seeds were also eaten, and sesame and olive oils were used in cooking. Other common foods included eggs and dairy products such as milk, yoghurt and cheese.
Animals and poultry were raised for food, but only the wealthy could afford to eat meat regularly. Rich Egyptians enjoyed beef, lamb, goat, venison and pork, along with ducks, geese and quail. Ordinary people relied on a vegetarian diet supplemented by what they could catch themselves. Rabbits, hares, wild birds and plentiful fish provided important protein. Larger households made sure of having fresh fish all year round by keeping them in garden pools.
Except in large households, where there were male cooks and bakers, cooking was the responsibility of women and girls. Part of their task was to prepare packed lunches for the men and boys to take to work or school. The kitchen was usually an open yard at the back of the house with a wood-fired oven, a grindstone and pots for storage. Food was served on trays or baskets; there were no plates, and people ate with their fingers. When they ate together, the family sat around the food and helped themselves, but at large parties, servants brought food and drink to the guests.
The model from Sebekhetepi’s tomb.
A brewing model
A model showing brewing on a large scale.
Nile and Egyptian agriculture
Useful article on the Nile and Egyptian agriculture.
Ancient Egyptian diet
General article on the ancient Egyptian diet, with good illustrations and a link to a feature on bread.
Bread in ancient Egypt
Beer and other Egyptian beverages
More information about beer and other Egyptian beverages.
Meat and fish in the Egyptian diet
Article on meat and fish in the Egyptian diet.
An account of famine
Extracts from a farmer’s letters, including a dramatic account of famine.