Documenting Egypt's Food Heritage from Apicius to Abla Nazeera

From temple walls to the modern cook book, discover the 5,000-year-old history of Egyptian food documentation

By Google Arts & Culture

Created by Hala Barakat

North Side of the West Wall of Nakht's Offering Chapel (ca. 1400–1352 B.C.) by Norman de Garis Davies|Lancelot Crane|Francis Sydney UnwinThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Food for life and the afterlife

In ancient Egypt, food was illustrated on walls of tombs. The depictions on the walls showed food processing such as the making of bread, beer, wine and preparing meat. Actual food was also placed in the tombs to prepare the dead for afterlife. 

Cooking Cakes with Fat, Tomb of Rekhmire (ca. 1504–1425 B.C.) by Nina de Garis DaviesThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

And, occasionally, we find recipes. A Tiger Nut cake recipe can be found on the wall of the Theban Tomb TT100 on the west bank of the Nile, close to Luxor. 

Marcus Gavius Apicius

The first cookbook on paper

1,900 years later, the first cookery book was written on paper. Apicius' "The art of cooking"  consists of a collection of simple and brief recipes in Latin. The book is organized into 10 "books" including some which had been mentioned by the first century Greek Epicurean Marcus Gavius Apicius. It included four recipes attributed to Alexandria (which at the time, was part of the Roman empire).

Food in Egypt After the Arabs (641/1517)RAWI Publishing

The first published cookbook

1,000 years later, the first 'proper' cookbook was written in Baghdad: kitab el tabikh or the book of cooking. 

Five copies of the manuscript have so far been found. Although anonymous, undated and with no provenance, specialists in Arabic manuscripts agree that the copies were written in Egypt during the 14th century. 

The most complete manuscript describes 830 recipes organized in 23 chapters. They cover all aspects of the kitchen, cooking and storing a great variety of foods and drinks, and even hygiene and perfuming rituals.

Osoul al-tahy al-nazari wa-l-'amali

The first modern Egyptian cookbook

Five centuries later, the first Egyptian cookbook was written by two Egyptian women. The book Osoul al-tahy al-nazari wa-l-'amali or "The Basics of Cooking: theoretical and Practical"  is perhaps the best representation of the early 20th century Egyptian cuisine. 

Kitab Abla Nazira (Abla —or Auntie—Nazira’s book)RAWI Publishing

Nazeera Niqola (known as Abla Nazeera) first published the 900 page text book in 1941 in collaboration with Baheya Othman. It comprises of 1,800 recipes covering various aspects of cooking. It is fascinating to see how the kitchen was a rich “melting and meeting pot” of Egyptian, Ottoman, Turkish and European cuisines. 

The cookbook also featured recipes for many different types of bread from Baladi (regular whole wheat bread) to sourdough to baguettes. Cakes included fateer al rahma (ritual cakes) and seamlessly follow the whole wheat scones and Christmas cakes. 

Recipes also cover many traditional vegetables including Molokheya (Jew's Mallow) and Khobeiza (mallow). They are followed and preceded by "foreign" vegetables such as Brussels sprouts and Asparagus (Keshk Almas).

A taste like no other

The long multilayered history of Egypt gives the Egyptian food heritage its unique flavor and taste.

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