The Diet of the Nile: What Did the Ancient Egyptians Eat?

Léonie Chao-Fong

Ancient and Classical Ancient Egypt
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Ancient Egyptians ate extremely well compared to people in other ancient civilisations of the world.

The Nile River provided water for livestock and kept the land fertile for crops. In a good season, the fields of Egypt could feed every person in the country abundantly and still have enough to store for leaner times.

Much of what we know about how ancient Egyptians ate and drank comes from artworks on tomb walls, which show the growing, hunting and preparation of food.

The main forms of food preparation were baking, boiling, grilling, frying, stewing and roasting.

Here is a taste of what the average – and slightly less average – ancient Egyptian would have eaten.

Daily mealtimes and special occasions

Ancient Egyptian dancers and musicians
Dancers and flutists, with an Egyptian hieroglyphic story (Credit: The Yorck Project).

Most ancient Egyptians ate two meals a day: a morning meal of bread and beer, followed by a hearty dinner with vegetables, meat – and more bread and beer.

Banquets usually began sometime in the afternoon. Unmarried men and women were separated, and seating would be allocated according to social status.

Servant women would circulate with jugs of wine, while dancers would be accompanied by musicians playing harps, lutes, drums, tambourines and clappers.

Bread

A painting depicting the court bakery of Ramesses III from his tomb in the Valley of the Kings (Credit: The Oxford encyclopedia of ancient Egypt).

Bread and beer were the two staples of the Egyptian diet.

The main grain cultivated in Egypt was emmer – known today as farro – which would be first grounded in flour. It was an arduous task usually carried out by women.

To speed up the process, sand would be added into the grinding mill. This is evident in the teeth of mummies.

The flour would then be mixed with water and yeast. The dough would then be placed in a clay mould and cooked in a stone oven.

Vegetables

Ancient Egyptian harvest
Wall painting depicting a couple harvesting papyrus (Credit: The Oxford encyclopedia of ancient Egypt).

The ancient Egyptians loved garlic which – along with green scallions – were the most common vegetables and also had medicinal purposes.

Wild vegetables were aplenty, from onions, leeks, lettuces, celery (eaten raw or to flavour stews), cucumbers, radishes and turnips to gourds, melons and papyrus stalks.

Pulses and legumes such as peas, beans, lentils and chickpeas served as vital sources of protein.

Meat

Ancient Egyptian hunting
The ancient Egyptian official Menna and his family hunting in the marshes (Credit: Rogers Fund, 1930).

Considered a luxury food, meat was not regularly consumed in ancient Egypt.

The rich would enjoy pork and mutton. Beef was even more expensive, and only eaten at celebratory or ritual occasions.

Hunters could catch a wide range of wild game including cranes, hippos and gazelles.

If they were in the mood for something smaller, ancient Egyptians could also enjoy mice and hedgehogs.

Hedgehogs would be baked in clay, which after cracking open would take the prickly spikes with it.

Poultry

Ancient Egyptian trapping birds
Painting depicting ancient Egyptians trapping birds and plowing the fields (Credit: The Yorck Project).

More common than red meat was poultry, which could be hunted by the poor. They included ducks, pigeon, geese, partridge and quail – even doves, swans and ostriches.

Eggs from ducks, swans and geese were regularly eaten.

The ancient Egyptians invented the delicacy of foie gras. The technique of gavage – cramming food into the mouth of ducks and geese – dates as far back as 2500 BC.

Fish

Ancient Egyptian foods
Foods depicted in a c. 1400 BC Egyptian burial chamber, including fish (Credit: The Yorck Project).

Perhaps surprising for a civilisation of people living by a river, there is some disagreement as to whether ancient Egyptians included fish into their daily diet.

Wall reliefs do however provide evidence of fishing using both spears and nets.

Some fish were considered sacred and not permitted for consumption, while others could be eaten after being roasted, or dried and salted.

Fish curing was so important that only temple officials were allowed to do it.

Fruits and sweets

Lady Djedkhonsuiwesankh
Painting of Lady Djedkhonsuiwesankh giving offerings of food, drink and flowers to Re-Horakhty (Credit: Oriental Institute, the University of Chicago).

Unlike vegetables, which were grown all year round, fruit was more seasonal. The most common fruit were dates, grapes and figs.

Figs were popular because they were high in sugar and protein, while grapes could be dried and preserved as raisins.

Dates would either be consumed fresh and or used to ferment wine or as sweeteners.

There were also nabk berries and certain species of Mimusops, as well as pomegranate.

Coconuts were an imported luxury item that only could be afforded by the wealthy.

Honey was the most prized of sweeteners, used to sweeten bread and cakes.

Ancient Egyptian ploughing
Painting depicting a farmer plowing in the burial chamber of Sennedjem (Credit: The Yorck Project).

The ancient Egyptians were the first people to eat marshmallows, harvesting mallow plants from marsh regions.

The sweets would be prepared by boiling pieces of root pulp with honey until thick. Once thickened, the mixture would be strained, cooled and eaten.

Herbs and spices

The ancient Egyptians used spices and herbs for flavour, including cumin, dill, coriander, mustard, thyme, marjoram and cinnamon.

Most spices were imported and therefore too expensive to be used beyond the kitchens of the wealthy.

Léonie Chao-Fong