The ancient Egyptians left writing everywhere, with hieroglyphs carved painstakingly onto stone steles and miraculously preserved in papyrus. Though historians are able to study ancient texts on subjects from trade to funeral rites, one category is largely missing from the record: recipes. Without any textual directions or menus, historians have looked elsewhere to unlock the secrets of a 5,000-year-old culinary culture. As it turns out, paintings on tomb walls can provide a rare glimpse into one of the oldest cuisines in the world.
Around 3100 BC, ancient Egyptians started to systematize their hieroglyphs, mummification techniques, and art, all of which influenced the construction of tombs. The most decorated tombs of the time, especially those adorned with food scenes, belonged to royalty. Workers painted scenes on tomb walls to commemorate the deceased’s accomplishments and to ensure that important ceremonies, from food to burial rituals, would endure in the Field of Reeds, the Egyptian afterlife. Some tomb paintings even included images depicting how workers prepared food.
Historians agree that tiger nuts (hab al-‘aziz), edible tubers found at the end of the Cyperus grass, were the primary ingredient in what could be considered the oldest-known Egyptian recipe, which dates from the 15th-century BC. A tomb painting interred with the vizier Rekhmire details how to make cone-shaped loaves of ground tiger nuts and honey. The scene depicts figures grinding tiger nuts with long pestles, and shaping the tuber-honey mixture with both hands into tall and pointy cones.
These images of tiger nut cones were meant to please the sun god Amun on Rekhmire’s behalf. But tiger nuts were not just used for special occasions. Egyptians also added tiger nuts to medicine and perfume, and ate them prepared in several ways. Some devoured tiger nuts raw, but others preferred it flavored, boiled in beer, or roasted atop a fire.
As popular as tiger nuts were, bread and beer formed the true bedrock of ancient Egyptian cuisine. Bakers usually made bread with emmer wheat and barley, two of the oldest cultivated grains. Bread was so important, in fact, that it had an outsized influence on ancient Egyptian writing. Historians have recorded 14 distinct hieroglyphs for bread.
To learn more about the process of baking ancient bread, researchers looked again to tomb paintings. One of the most vivid bread baking scenes comes from the Fifth Dynasty tomb of Ту in Saqqara. One painting shows beer and bread production in tandem, with scenes of cooks making bappir, or beer bread, and the use of bedja, or ceramic bread molds for baking. The scene shows workers cooking bread outdoors through a process called stack heating, which involves baking bread dough inside two preheated bedja bowls clamped together. Additional tomb paintings convey many more steps of the baking process, such as workers kneading dough with both hands or mixing bread with their feet.
Another baking scene, from Ramses III’s tomb, suggests a possible recipe for emmer wheat bread that was sprinkled with grape juice to leaven it and boiled before baking. Drawn in motion, the workers smash grapes with their feet, shape bread into spirals, and bake the bread in a vertical tanoor oven.
These images tell one story about ancient Egyptian cuisine. However, it’s important to note that many did not have the same access to this food culture. The wealthy dead could command elaborate tomb paintings, specialty food items, and even food mummies of many varieties. According to Egyptian food historian Mennat-Allah El Dorry, food remains from the construction of the Giza pyramids show evidence of this divide: the wealthy ate larger cuts of meat and a varied diet, while simple workmen ate poorer cuts of meat and simpler foods. But besides this scant evidence, not much is known about class disparities in ancient Egyptian foodways.
Even though Egypt’s tomb paintings miraculously endured for thousands of years, more recent events have imperiled them. The vibrant paintings within Ramses III’s tomb nearly vanished due to early-19th century floods. Since the floods, historians have tirelessly worked to restore, reconstruct, and upload photographs of the paintings to the internet for future research. For some tasty research of your own, try your hand at these recipes for tiger nut cones and emmer wheat bread, inspired by ancient Egypt’s tomb paintings.
Rekhmire’s Tiger Nut Cones
Servings: 10 small cones
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time (plus cooling): 30 minutes
1 cup of tiger nuts, raw (tiger nuts can be purchased online or at many health food stores.)
¼ cup of honey
¼ cup of olive oil
½ cup dates, chopped (optional)
- Measure out one cup of tiger nuts. Pour ½ cup of hot water over the nuts and let soak for 20 minutes. Then, drain off the water and use a food processor to grind the nuts into a powder.
- Add the tiger nuts, honey, oil, and dates all at once to a pan. Mix constantly on medium heat for two minutes. Then, turn the heat to a low simmer, so the honey doesn’t burn. Continue mixing for the next five minutes.
- Turn off the heat and pour the tiger nut mix onto a plate. Let it cool for 20 minutes. Form 10 one-inch-diameter balls with your hands. Shape the balls into cones, and stand them straight up.
Ramses III’s Emmer Wheat Bread
Servings: Six small loaves
Prep Time: 1 hour and 15 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes
2 ½ cups emmer flour (you can purchase emmer wheat flour online from sites such as Bluebird Grain Farms or Camas Country Mill)
2 tablespoons honey
1/2 teaspoon instant yeast
1 cup warm grape juice
½ cup chopped dates (optional)
2 quarts water for boiling
⅓ cup of honey
- Combine the emmer flour, honey, yeast, and warm grape juice in a medium bowl. Mix the ingredients and knead into a ball. Set aside the bowl, and let the dough rise for at least one hour in a warm spot.
- During this time, preheat the oven to 425° F. Start boiling the water. Once it boils, add ⅓ cup of honey.
- After an hour, split the dough into six equal pieces and roll each one into a ball. (Add the chopped dates, if desired.)
- Roll each ball of dough into a long tube, and wrap until it forms a spiral.
- Gently place one bread spiral at a time into the boiling water, using a long spoon. Let the dough boil in the water for at most two minutes. Take the dough out, and put it on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Repeat with the remaining spirals.
- Once all six spirals have been boiled, place the baking sheet in the oven for 14 to 16 minutes. Serve the bread warm, or at room temperature.
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