Ancient Egyptian Cuisine


The fertile soil of Egypt was an essential factor in helping ancient Egyptians farm a wide range of crops such as vegetables, fruits, and legumes. Meanwhile, agriculture itself played a major role in human settlement, as well as animals and birds domestication. All this helped diversify ancient Egyptian food sources, which was positively reflected on the Egyptians’ health in general.


Different kinds of vegetables appeared in scenes and inscriptions on the walls of ancient Egyptian tombs; such as peas, lettuce, leeks, turnips, radishes, and cucumbers; in addition to onion and garlic, which were planted and eaten in huge quantities thanks to their well-known benefits, whether as part of their daily meals or in medical prescriptions.


Ancient Egyptians had great appreciation for fruits; such as sycamore, watermelon, cantaloupe, pomegranate, tubers, berries, cyperus, and doum, all of which were eaten fresh or used for sweetening. In later times, some new kinds were cultivated, such as citrus, lemon, walnut, peach, pear, apple, and dates. The fruit was eaten fresh or boiled, or was drunk as juice or wine. Moreover, some kinds were dried such as grapes (raisins), dates, and figs.


Egyptians have tended to eat animals’ meat since ancient times, preferring beef, followed by mutton and goat; at the end of the list come hunted animals such as deer, wild goats, and caribou.


There were domesticated, wild, and migratory birds. Geese and ducks were the most favored kind, as well as pigeon, quail, and ostriches. Chicken, however, were not available in Egypt till a later period of history.


There are many Nile fishing scenes, demonstrating different types of fish: perch, tilapia, mullet, catfish, synodontis, schilbeidae, grouper and gudgeon. Fish was one of the most favored foods for ancient Egyptians; it was eaten in many ways, whether fresh, salted, or dried.


Ancient Egyptians liked to eat many kinds of legumes such as black-eyed kidney beans, peas, beans, and lentils for their nourishment and healthy benefits. Moreover, oil was extracted from plant seeds such as sesame, castor, and radishes; Egyptians were also pioneers in using herbs and spices such as star anise, cumin, cinnamon, fennel, fenugreek, mustard, and thyme.


Bread occupied a major place on the day’s menu. There were about 40 kinds of bread and bakery, which differed in shape—round, oval, rolled up, or conical—as well as in the type of flour used—wheat, barley, or corn. Ancient Egyptians also used margarine, honey, milk, eggs, salt, and yeast in making the bread; while sesame, anise, and cumin were added for decoration. For making sweet pies, they added fruits on the top of the bread such as: dates, figs, and buckthorn.

Meat, fish, and birds were either grilled, boiled, or sundried. They were also salted and seasoned to be eaten later on; such as mullet fish (fesikh), quails, sparrows, and ducks. Egyptians also knew the benefits of adding grease and fats in preserving food while cooking.

As for popular ancient Egyptian dishes that we still eat today, they included: (1) lentils, which were eaten frequently; (2) beans, which were either cooked by being put it in the hot oven dust—this was called “Metehmes”, later modified to “Medames”—or cooked in pots—this was called “Besarou”, which we now call “Bissara”—both ways are still known and demanded by many Egyptians; (3) salted chickpeas, still known as “Al-Mlanah”; and (4) lupine, which was eaten after being soaked in water and salted.

It is clear that the ancient Egyptian cuisine’s nutritional elements were well-balanced and integrated, which was well-reflected on their health, immunity system, and disease resistance. Food was not only a way to obtain energy and health, but also a source of plant and animal remedies for the treatment of diseases as well as curing burns and injuries.

Douglas. J. Brewer and Renée F. Friedman, Fish and Fishing in Ancient Egypt, American University in Cairo Press, 1990.
F. Filce Leek, Teeth. “Bread in Ancient Egypt”: JEA, Vol. 58, August 1972.
Germond, Philippe and Jacques Livet. An Egyptian Bestiary: Animals in Life and Religion in the Land of the Pharaohs. Thames and Hudson, 2001.
Hilary Wilson, Egyptian Food and Drinks (Shire Egyptology), United Kingdom, 1988.
Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson, British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, British Museum Press, United Kingdom,1995.
Lise Manniche, An Ancient Egyptian Herbal. The American University in Cairo Press, 2006.
Strouhal, Eugen. Life of the Ancient Egyptians. Cambridge Press, 1992.
إيمان محمد المهدي، الخبز في مصر القديمة، القاهرة: الهيئة المصرية العامة للكتاب، 2009.
فرانسوا دوما، الحياة في مصر القديمة، ترجمة رفعت عواد، القاهرة: المجلس الأعلى للثقافة، 2006.

Top image: Ancient Egyptian preparing food. Source: (Elnur/Adobe)

This article was first published in print in SCIplanet, Autumn 2015 Issue.

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