Egyptians Were Preppers & Discovered Fermentation
In ancient times, fermentation was considered as a way of both preserving food and retaining its nutritional value. It was probably accidentally discovered in ancient Egypt when dough, made from ground-up wheat and rye, was left for a period of time before cooking. In contrast to dough that was immediately cooked, it was observed that the aged dough expanded in size and, when cooked, produced tastier, lighter bread.
The discovery of fermentation in Egypt also led to the first production of wine and alcohol. All these discoveries were largely phenomenological and it would be another 3000 years before the exact cause of fermentation was uncovered. It was Louis Pasteur, in 1857, who was able to demonstrate that alcohol can be produced by yeast when grown in particular conditions. This discovery revolutionised the modern food industry: for the first time the agent of fermentation was identified and could be used commercially.
- aids the preservation of vitamin C and actually produces vitamins B and K
- makes food more digestible – particularly some hard-to-digest starches
- can reduce the levels of some toxic compounds – such as hydrocyanic acid, oxalic acid, some aflatoxins and ochratoxin – in certain foods.
How did Ancient Egyptians preserve their food?
Ancient Egyptians employed a variety of methods for food preservation. Great silos were constructed to preserve grain for long periods of time. Fish, meat, vegetables and fruits were were preserved by drying and salting. Grains were fermented to create beer.
“There is evidence that as early as 12,000 B.C., Egyptian tribespeople on the lower Nile dried fish and poultry using the hot desert sun. Areas with similar hot and dry climates found drying to be an effective method of preservation…Herodutus, writing in the fifth century B.C., describes how the Egyptians and their neighbors still dried fish in the sun and wind and then strored them for long periods.”
—Pickled, Potted and Canned: How the Art and Science of Food Processing Changed the World, Sue Shepard [Simon & Schuster:New York] 2000 (p. 31)
“…the Babylonians and Egyptians pickled fish such as sturgeon, salmon, and catfish, as well as poultry and geese. Sometimes salt was relatively easy to extract; in other parts it was more difficult.”
—ibid (p. 76)
“Salt has been used to preserve fish since ancient times, possibly even before meat was cured. The early Mesopotamian civilizations relied on a staple diet of salt fish and barley proridge…Fish curing, depicted in the tombs of ancient Egypt, was so highly regarded that only temple officials were entrusted with the knowledge of the art, and it is significant that the Egyptian word for fish preserving was the same as that used to denote the process of embalming the dead.”
—ibid (p. 79)
“For thousands of years the survival and power of a tribe or country depended on its stocks in grain. Harvesting, processing, and storing grain stocks was of huge importance, and war was declared only after harvest…One of the earliest records of large-scale food preserving was in ancient Egypt, where it was enourmously important to create adequate stocks of dried grain to insure against the failure of the Nile to flood seasonally. Huge quantities of grain were stored in sealed silo, where they could be kept for several years if necessary. Records from 2600 B.C. show that the annual flooding of the Nile produced surpluses of grain that were stored and kept to feed builders of irrigation schemes and pyramid tombs. The Great Pyramid of Cheops at Giza was built around 2900 B.C. by slaves fed with stores of grain and chickpeas, onions, and garlic.”
—ibid (p. 51)
“Dried saltfish was part of a soldier’s rations. Roe from the mullet, a periodic visitor to the canals of the Nile, was also extracted during the drying process of the fish, to be pressed into large flat cakes and preserved.”
—Food: A Culinary History, Jean-Louis Flandrin & Masimo Montanari [Columbia University Press:New York] 1999 (p. 42)
Authentic Ancient Egyptian Recipes
Egyptian Flat Bread
Makes about 8 pitta
500 g /1 1/2 lb spelt or other strong bread flour (brown or white)
1/2 tsp salt
7-g/ 1/3-oz sachet easy-blend dried yeast (1 packet)
300 ml /1/2 pint/ 1 1/2 cups tepid water (one-third boiling to two-thirds cold)
Mix the flour with the salt and yeast in a large bols. Make a well in the centre and pour in the water. Gradually draw the flour into the water and mix to a soft dough. Knead by hand on a floured board for 15 minutes, or for 10 minutes in a food processor fitted with a dough hook. Pour a little oil into the bottom of a bowl, roll the dough in it and cover the bowl with a clean damp cloth or cling film. Put in a warm place for 1 1/2-2 hours or until the dough has almost doubled in size. Remove the dough from the bowl and ‘knock back’ or punch it down. Knead it again for another 3-4 minutes, then cut into eight pieces. On a floured board, flatten out each piece into a round (about 5 mm / 1/2 inch thick) with your hand or a rolling pin. Transfer to a floured baking tray and bake in a preheated hot oven (220 degrees C/ 425 degrees F/ Gas mark 7) for 8-10 minutes. Do not open the oven door while the bread is baking. each bread should puff up, leaving a pocket in the middle. Remove from the oven and cool slightly on a wire rack.”
Makes 2 rings
500 g /1 1/2 lb strong white bread flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
7-g/ 1/3-oz sachet easy-blend dried yeast (1 packet)
300 ml/ 1/2 pint/ 1 1/2 cups tepid water (one-third boiling to two thirds cold)
2 tbsp olive oil
sesame seeds for sprinkling
Mix the flour, salt, sugar and yeast in a large bowl and make a well in the centre. Pour in the water and oil and gradually draw in the flour. Knead on a floured board for 15 minutes, or for 10 minutes in a food processor fitted with a dough hook. Pour a little oil into a bowl, roll the dough in it and cover the bowl with a clean damp cloth or cling film. Put in a warm place for 1 1/2 -2 hours or until the dough has almost doubled in size. Take the dough out of the bowl, ‘knock back’ or punch it down and knead again for a further 5 minutes. Cut the dough in half and roll each half into a sausage shape that you can form into a ring with a diameter of about 20 cm/ 8 in, about 5 cm/ 2 in thick. Lay the rings on an oiled baking tray. Bweat the egg wtih 2 tbsp water and glaze the tops of the rings. Sprinkle generously with sesame seeds and bake in a preheated hot oven (220 degrees C/ 425 degrees F/ Gas Mark 7) for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to 150 degrees C/ 300 degrees F/ Gas Mark 23 for a further 15 minutes. Remove from oven and cool on a wire rack.”
—Food Fit for Pharoahs: An Ancient Egyptian Cookbook, Michelle Berridale-Johnson [British Museum Press:London] 1999 (p. 61-62)