The History, People and Culture of the Nile Valley
Ancient Egypt Magazine
Volume 8 issue 1 August 2007
Per Mesut - for younger readers
An Ancient Egyptian Picnic
In the hot summer months and the school holiday season, throughout the country people will be enjoying picnics and barbecues.
Most cultures have developed foods that can be easily transported and eaten out of doors. Cornish pasties, samosas, pizzas, enchiladas, hot dogs and sandwiches all have one thing in common – the outer casing is made from some sort of dough made from the local flour. The ancient Egyptians relied on bread for the bulk of most meals. One type of loaf that seems to have been designed for a picnic meal was made with a dent in the middle, sometimes with the dough pinched up into a wall around it. The Egyptian housewife would spoon into this hollow a helping of whatever was cooking on the kitchen fire – a stew of fish, wild fowl, beans or vegetables. The loaf was then wrapped in a cloth for the workman to take with him to the fields as his packed lunch. Even simpler, the cook would crack an egg into the loaf before it was fully baked. The result – all-inone egg on toast!
Protein from meat was expensive and beyond the reach of most peasants and villagers. They would have depended on fish caught from the Nile and ducks and geese hunted in the marshes. They also grew a wide variety of vegetables, including peas and beans, in their gardens. Some may have been able to afford a goat to provide them with milk. There were no chickens in Egypt until Roman times so eggs were available only in the laying season from domesticated ducks, or were collected from the wild.
The main differences between the ancient diet and food served in Egypt today is that many things have been introduced from other countries. Potatoes, rice and maize are now common alternatives to bread. Tomatoes, aubergines and peppers are among the most popular vegetables.
Bananas, mangoes and guavas are sold in every market place. Oranges and lemons are taken for granted as in all Mediterranean countries. But none of these plants were known to the ancient Egyptians. Sweetness had to come from fruit or honey as sugar is made from sugarcane, which is another recent introduction to Egypt.
In the reconstructed wall from the Aten Temple, now displayed in the Luxor Museum, you can see a workman sitting down for his midday snack. The basket beside him holds bread and fruit. In one hand he holds an onion and he is eating something, perhaps a crust of bread, from his other hand. I have seen modern Egyptians, sitting in a park in Cairo, enjoying the same sort of simple meal.
Ancient Egyptian bread. This example can be seen in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Photo: RP.
Some Egyptian food traditions are said to be as old as the pharaohs. Here are some ideas for recreating your own ancient Egyptian picnic.
You could make your own bread, but pitta breads (wholemeal, of course, to be as authentic as possible) are easily available. The hot climate of Egypt prevents the making of solid butter or hard cheeses like Cheddar, but the ancient Egyptians turned milk into a type of yoghurt or a soft, cream cheese of the sort known as labna in Arabic, which could be spread on bread. To make your own labna take a large tub of whole milk yoghurt (low fat or fat-free yoghurt will not give very good results) and stir in about half a teaspoon of salt. Line a sieve with a damp muslin cloth and place it over a bowl. Pour the salted yoghurt into the sieve and leave it in a cool place overnight to drain. The liquid (whey) that drains into the bowl can be used in bread-making to enrich the dough, otherwise it is thrown away. The longer you let it drain, the firmer the end result will be, but don’t be tempted to squeeze it through the cloth to speed up the process. The white curd left in the sieve can be made into a savoury cheese by mixing in some chopped herbs such as chives, or into a sweet, dessert cheese by stirring in some honey and adding a sprinkling of cinnamon, (the ancient Egyptians would have used cassia), or you can coat balls of the firm cheese in dried herbs or chopped nuts.
Bee-keeping. The bottom part of this scene, from the tomb of Pabasa at Luxor, shows the bees and their basket hives, and the top shows the honey being poured into a storage jar. Photo: RP.
Hard-boiled eggs are an essential ingredient of an Egyptian picnic. Traditionally, they are cooked slowly for a very long time, with onion skins in the water. This makes the yolks creamy and deep yellow, and the whites a pale fawn colour. These are called hamine eggs, and are often served with beans or lentils. To make a quick bean salad, empty a can of mixed pulses into a sieve and rinse them under the cold tap. Make a simple dressing of oil and vinegar with a teaspoon of wholegrain mustard (or you could cheat by using a shop-bought vinaigrette), add some finely chopped onion or shallot with chopped parsley and stir in the beans. One of the most traditional street foods of Egypt is ta’amia or bean rissoles. The recipe is simple but time-consuming because the beans have to be soaked for hours, then boiled for a long time, then mashed with garlic, herbs and spices, before being made into balls or patties and fried. These days it is much quicker to use a packet mix, usually called felafel or falafel, which produces perfectly acceptable and tasty results. These are usually served with salad in a pitta bread.
Along with your bread, cheese, eggs and beans you can have fresh salad vegetables such as lettuce, cucumber, radishes and onions. For dessert you can have the sweetened cheese or yoghurt, or fruit – fresh or dried dates, figs and grapes, pomegranates or, best of all, a juicy slice of melon. The ancient Egyptians made breads flavoured with honey or fruit, so, with a stretch of the imagination, you could have a slice of fruit-cake or a currant bun. All Egyptians, young and old, would drink beer with their meal. Wealthier people would have wine. As a good non-alcoholic substitute drink for your picnic try grape or pomegranate juice, but remember you can’t have orange squash or lemonade.
Now all you need is the good weather to help you believe you are in Egypt!
Further reading: Egyptian Food and Drink by Hilary Wilson.
A New Book of Middle Eastern Cookery by Claudia Roden.
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