While the Egyptians did not record for posterity social and cultural aspects of cuisine, we are lucky to have some glimmerings into the topics by Herodotus, recorded in Book II of his Histories, written in 5th Century BCE.
Some of his recordings are listed below. However, it must be remembered that Herodotus is writing very much second-hand – his informants were the priests of the temples whom he met, and it is never clear how extensive some of the practices were. Nevertheless, the little data given by Herodotus is fascinating and some (which I’ve noted in brackets) are recorded as being practiced in sub-Saharan Africa by colonial explorers in the 19th Century.
Herodotus-History of Egypt – Portions on Food
Regarding The Inhabitants south of Memphis [i.e., Upper Egypt]:
It is certain however that now they gather in fruit from the earth with less labour than any other men and also with less than the other Egyptians; for they have no labour in breaking up furrows with a plough nor in hoeing nor in any other of those labours which other men have about a crop; but when the river has come up of itself and watered their fields and after watering has left them again, then each man sows his own field and turns into it swine, and when he has trodden the seed into the ground by means of the swine, after that he waits for the harvest, and when he has threshed the corn by means of the swine, then he gathers it in.
… it is not permitted to them to taste of fish: beans moreover the Egyptians do not at all sow in their land, and those which they grow they neither eat raw nor boil for food; nay the priests do not endure even to look upon them, thinking this to be an unclean kind of pulse …
For three successive days in each month they [presumably priests] purge, hunting after health with emetics and clysters, and they think that all the diseases which exist are produced in men by the food on which they live: for the Egyptians are from other causes also the most healthy of all men next after the Libyans (in my opinion on account of the seasons…)
… As to their diet, it is as follows:–they eat bread, making loaves of maize [this would presumably be millet], which they call _kyllestis_, and they use habitually a wine made out of barley, for vines they have not in their land [not so in earlier periods of Egyptian history].
Of their fish some they dry in the sun and then eat them without cooking, others they eat cured in brine [called fasikh, today, and eaten on the day of Shamm al-Nasim]. Of birds they eat quails and ducks and small birds without cooking, after first curing them; and everything else which they have belonging to the class of birds or fishes, except such as have been set apart by them as sacred, they eat roasted or boiled.
In the entertainments of the rich among them, when they have finished eating, a man bears round a wooden figure of a dead body in a coffin, made as like the reality as may be both by painting and carving, and measuring about a cubit or two cubits each way; and this he shows to each of those who are drinking together, saying: “When thou lookest upon this, drink and be merry, for thou shalt be such as this when thou art dead.” Thus they do at their carousals.
All these are customs practised by the Egyptians who dwell above the fens [i.e., south of the Delta]: and those who are settled in the fenland [the Delta] have the same customs for the most part as the other Egyptians, both in other matters and also in that they live each with one wife only, as do the Hellenes; but for economy in respect of food they have invented these things besides:–when the river has become full and the plains have been flooded, there grow in the water great numbers of lilies, which the Egyptians call _lotos_; these they cut with a sickle and dry in the sun, and then they pound that which grows in the middle of the lotos and which is like the head of a poppy, and they make of it loaves baked with fire. The root also of this lotos is edible and has a rather sweet taste: it is round in shape and about the size of an apple [this was also practiced throughout sub-Saharan Africa until recently].
There are other lilies too, in flower resembling roses, which also grow in the river, and from them the fruit is produced in a separate vessel springing from the root by the side of the plant itself, and very nearly resembles a wasp’s comb: in this there grow edible seeds in great numbers of the size of an olive-stone, and they are eaten either fresh or dried [also practiced in sub-Saharan Africa until recently].
Besides this they pull up from the fens the papyrus which grows every year, and the upper parts of it they cut off and turn to other uses, but that which is left below for about a cubit in length they eat or sell: and those who desire to have the papyrus at its very best bake it in an oven heated red-hot, and then eat it. Some too of these people live on fish alone, which they dry in the sun after having caught them and taken out the entrails, and then when they are dry, they use them for food.
I shall speak however of the sacrifices to that goddess whom they regard as the greatest of all, and to whom they celebrate the greatest feast.–When they have flayed the bullock and made imprecation, they take out the whole of its lower entrails but leave in the body the upper entrails and the fat; and they sever from it the legs and the end of the loin and the shoulders and the neck: and this done, they fill the rest of the body of the animal with consecrated loaves and honey and raisins and figs and frankincense and myrrh and every other kind of spices, and having filled it with these they offer it, pouring over it great abundance of oil. They make their sacrifice after fasting, and while the offerings are being burnt, they all beat themselves for mourning, and when they have finished beating themselves they set forth as a feast that which they left unburnt of the sacrifice.
On the pyramid it is declared in Egyptian writing how much was spent on radishes and onions and leeks for the workmen, and if I rightly remember that which the interpreter said in reading to me this inscription, a sum of one thousand six hundred talents of silver was spent; and if this is so, how much besides is likely to have been expended upon the iron with which they worked, and upon bread and clothing for the workmen, seeing that they were building
- Menes The Ancient Egyptian Pharaoh (cardsmall.wordpress.com)
- What type of armor did ancient Egypt use (wiki.answers.com)
- The Other Egyptian Stone (socyberty.com)
- Herodotus, the Iliad, and 9/11 (3quarksdaily.com)