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Hilde Lee: Bamia, a lamb and okra stew, offers a rich taste of ancient Egyptian foodways

Hilde Lee: Bamia, a lamb and okra stew, offers a rich taste of ancient Egyptian foodways

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Are you tired of staying home? I have quickly become an armchair traveler, and I always have been very interested in history. Many years ago, I was a foreign affairs major in college. After meeting someone from Egypt recently, and receiving an invitation to come and visit that country, I have done some “armchair visitations” to the pyramids. Join me in an armchair tour of Egypt and the Middle East. What kind of food was available in ancient Egypt, and what was life like around 3500 B.C?

Historians tell us that Egypt was the first place to develop socially outside of the Fertile Crescent and the Middle East. It was the first area to practice agriculture and domestication of animals, establish a cuisine, and have a type of medical practices. There is evidence in writings, as well as in tomb paintings, of foods. Even jars of food have been discovered in tombs.

The Persians from about 3100 B.C. to about 525 B.C ruled Egypt almost continuously. Then the Greeks came into Egypt. Historians say that this was the longest continual civilization on Earth, with the exception of the Chinese.

Egypt, being a peaceful country, was a nice contrast to its neighbors. Water for agriculture was channeled from rivers. The majority of water came from very predictable Nile floods that brought tons of silt and rich soil. There were extensive trade routes.

Egyptians loved animals. They kept them as pets, mummified them as pets and worshipped them as gods. They used them as symbols of their writings, and loved to eat them. The Egyptians did not have any rigid food restrictions like the ones the Hebrews and Hindus followed.

Grain was of prime importance to the Egyptians. The state stored massive amounts of grain to prevent famine in lean years. Egypt imported grain from Syria or demanded it in tribute from subject states. The state often distributed this grain as a kind of welfare. Priests oversaw the distribution, and offered some to the gods.

Barley figured prominently in the Egyptian diet and in its mythical stories because resurrection. Because the plant dies, goes dormant and then sprouts up into a new plant, barley was a symbol of afterlife. The Egyptians ate many different kinds of bread, which was made from barley, as their tomb paintings illustrated.

Wild game — ibex, gazelle and antelopes — were hunted for food. However, the Egyptians loved beef. A large-scale cattle industry was developed in the north, where there were broad, flat plains. Although there are numerous illustrations of butcher’s shops, no cooking instructions for beef have been found. However, historians have assumed that there was a dairy industry in ancient Egypt, as depictions of milkmaids have been discovered.

Pigs were raised in an earlier time period, but, like the Hebrews, the Egyptians avoided pork. Sheep and goats were domesticated, but sheep were used mostly for the wool to make clothing. Fowl were used for temple offerings; they were cooked primarily for funeral food.

Egyptians loved fish. It is difficult to identify the species that they ate from paintings. Fish were presumably dried and salted and stacked in baskets.

Although it seems unbelievable, there was a wine industry in ancient Egypt. Tomb paintings contain many scenes of grape harvesting and winemaking. Wine was buried in tombs, such as in King Tut’s. Sometimes, the jars contained information, like the estate, winemaker and year of vintage. There was a luxury trade in wine — after all, the pharaohs were to drink the best wine in the afterlife.

Beans were as important in ancient Egypt as they are today. Fava beans were the main starch in the ancient Egyptian diet. They also had lentils.

It is hard to imagine that, so long ago, spices were part of the Egyptian cuisine. Cumin, anise and coriander, in addition to garlic and onions, were used in Egyptian cooking. The latter two were fed to slaves building the pyramids to enhance their strength.

Although much of the Arab world shares some of the same foods, there are regional and national specialties. Many of the traditional dishes of Egypt are as old as the windswept stones of the pyramids. Ful medames, a dish of brown beans flavored with garlic, dressed with oil and lemon juice, is served for breakfast, lunch, and supper in many Egyptian homes. It is said to have been eaten in the days of the pharaohs.

The aroma of dark green and glutinous melokhia soup, made with the leaves of a spinach-like herb and garnished with teklia, a sauce of fried garlic and coriander, perfumes the houses of rich and poor alike. This soup goes back to the ancient past. Chopping the melokhia leaves is portrayed in tomb paintings.

The ancient Egyptians favored roast goose. Even today, poultry and game birds are still popular and simply roasted as in days past. Chickens and baby pigeons are spit roasted. They are stuffed with rice and or whole-wheat kernels. Quail are marinated in oil with cumin and coriander and grilled over charcoal. They are served on a bed of rice pilaf.

Even today, in the modern world, Egyptians take great pride in their food preparations and presentation. Dishes are colored gold with saffron as a mark of joy. Sweets are perfumed with orange-flower water and rose water.

Bamia is an Egyptian specialty. If canned or frozen okra is used, add it at the time of cooking.

Bamia (Lamb and Okra Stew)

2 pounds okra

 2 ounces butter

 2 onions, finely chopped

 2 garlic cloves, chopped

 1½ pound lean lamb, cut into 1-inch cubes

 3 medium ripe tomatoes, sliced

 2 tablespoons tomato paste, mixed with 4 tablespoons water


 Freshly ground black pepper

Wash the okra and cut off the stems. If they are large, cut into pieces. Melt the butter in a large saucepan. Add the onions and garlic and fry, stirring, until the onions are soft, but not brown. Add the lamb pieces and brown them all over. If fresh okra is being used, add to the pan and fry, stirring for 2 to 3 minutes.

Add the tomatoes and tomato paste, and add salt and pepper to taste. Add enough water to cover the meat and vegetables. Bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat. Cover the pan and simmer on low for 1½ hours, or until the meat is tender and the sauce is rich.

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