Make bread fit for a pharaoh and a sweet treat out of tiger nuts.
The ancient Egyptians left writing everywhere, with hieroglyphics 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 hieroglyphics, 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 hieroglyphics 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.