Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Pharoah's Surprisingly Changeless Kitchen

As I said in my last post, I received three different books on historic cuisines for Christmas.  I finished the book on historic Egyptian cuisine first, so that shall be the first book I will review for this blog.  Here's the citation:  
Mehdawy, Magda & Hussien, Amr.  The Pharoah's Kitchen:  Recipes from Ancient Egypt's Enduring Food Traditions.  (American University in Cairo Press 2010).
The Preface indicates that The Pharoah's Kitchen was originally published in Arabic, and won a prize in its original edition. Perhaps that was because of the manner in which it combines readability with information density; at any rate, there is much interesting information in the book about ancient Egyptian food preparation tools, and available animals, plants and herbs, even if one doesn't credit all of the authors' conclusions.

The authors, one of whom is an archaeologist, begin by noting that the ancient Egyptians have left us many, many depictions of food preparation and cooking (both two-dimensional paintings and three-dimensional dioramas and sculptures). These sources also contain information about the foods and seasonings that were available and used. However, no written ancient Egyptian recipes have been found. How do we bridge the gap between the methods and materials available and their use to produce actual meals?

Model of an ancient Egyptian kitchen
Mehdawy and Hussien have chosen to bring the gap by looking to surviving modern-day cooking in southern Egypt (confusingly known as "Upper Egypt") and Nubia, an area that was relatively unaffected by the series of conquerors who controlled the north of Egypt.  According to the authors, people in this region continue to use many of the primitive cooking and baking techniques of their ancestors. 

"Modern" Egyptians baking bread
Pictures like the recent Wikimedia Commons photograph to the left showing bread making certainly suggest that, except for the importation of New World and other foreign ingredients (which the authors carefully acknowledge were not available in Pharonic Egypt), cooking in Upper Egypt and Nubia hasn't changed much in 8,000 years.  But it's still a long step from "many modern Egyptians still use the tools and techniques of ancient cooking" to "modern Egyptians make the same simple foods with the same simple spices that were made by their Pharonic ancestors."

And the "recipes" provided in the book are very simple indeed.  According to Mehdawy and Hussien, most meats were  (and are) boiled and eaten with the broth, or roasted, stuffed with cracked wheat, or not.  Onions were (and are) a frequent accompaniment.  Lentils and other legumes were (and are) commonly eaten.  The recipes given in the book are modern, and the authors say "ancient recipes would have been similar but without things like maize, tomatoes, chili pepper, etc."  A few plants strange to modern Americans, such as okra and fenugreek, turn up with some frequency.  Seasonings at most consist of salt and black pepper (*did* the ancient Egyptians have black pepper?  I'm not certain, and the authors do not answer the question) and perhaps one other spice such as cumin, coriander, or cinnamon.  Most of them seem boring to a modern palate.

I am of two minds as to how convinced I am by the author's approach.  On one hand, as an amateur researcher of Dark Ages European costume, I understand what it is like to confront a dearth of data and to seek to bridge gaps in knowledge about an area of material culture for a particular period.  I also believe that tomb finds and tomb paintings confirm that many of the foods that are enjoyed today were enjoyed by the ancient Egyptians, and that some of the same cooking methods survive.

But it seems to me that the sort of surviving dishes apply only to the poorest Egyptians living in what was once Upper Egypt.  Are we to believe that all Egyptians continue to eat the same diet eaten by their forebears for the last 7,000 years?  I don't think so.  And the authors candidly admit that Lower Egypt's cuisine changed with the conquerors of Egypt (suggesting that the "Pharoah's Kitchen" of the title is probably also a misnomer).

Still, I'm not sorry I have read this book.  It is a powerful reminder of how technology as well as botany and zoology shape the things that people can obtain to eat. It also has made me think about how different the land of Egypt is, both now and over its colorful past, than any other place in which I have ever lived.

I may do some experimenting with recipes in the book. Some of the lentil dishes and flatbread recipes seem to be worth trying. The book also claims that fenugreek was made into a beverage as well as eaten in food, and this is of interest to me as an insulin-dependent diabetic, because modern research suggests that this ancient herb helps moderate blood glucose levels. As always, I will write about my experiments and what I learn from them on this blog.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for reviewing this. I was previously unaware of its existence.