eat like an ancient
I was browsing through an online bookstore and came across: Pharaoh’s Kitchen by Magda Mehdawy. This immediately sparked my interest as I had not really given much thought to the preparation of food in ancient Egypt. I had some idea of what they ate and understood some of the technologies they employed in their agriculture. But in terms of what went on in the kitchen, I drew a blank. Often times, films set in the Middle Ages show cavernous kitchens with billowing fireplaces and a myriad of kitchen staff running every which way to ensure the lords and ladies were fed. Can you think of a film set in the ancient work that spends any time in a kitchen? Not I.
Mehdawy goes into great detail about the evidence we have for understanding the role food played in Egyptian life. Religious rituals required extensive food and drink offerings. There are many images and reliefs of banqueting, food growing and animal husbandry. In terms of recipes and food preparation, there is little specific evidence that reveals how these things were actually done.
Mehdawy’s recipes are those that have stood the test of millenia and reveal some fleeting aspects of the Pharaoh’s table. Interestingly, she comments that food preparation and the diet of ancient Nubia (modern day Sudan) has not changed dramatically over the Millenia as Nubia was not influenced by the Arab diet. She includes specific Nubian recipes as well as those from Egypt.
Broadly, I began to think about food and drink in the ancient world - and more specifically about food preparation, storage and recipes. Due to extensive trade networks, people in the ancient world had access to a huge variety of local and imported food stuffs. I can imagine a cook in a Roman kitchen being presented with Middle Eastern spices and then experimenting with how they could be incorporated into a meal for the master of the house. Of course we do that today, but if I am presented with a new spice, I turn to any number of celebrity chefs who can best advise how to use the magical ingredient. Imagine tasting salt for the first time? or sugar? or cardamom?
If I have whetted your appetite and you wish to know more about food in the ancient world, here are some resources you can check out:
Food in the Ancient World by John Wilkins
Eating to Excess by Susan Hill
The Origins and Ancient History of Wine, by Patrick McGovern (ed)
Bread: a global history, by Willian Rubel
Go forth and conquer - in the kitchen!