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Eat like an Egyptian

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We are still fascinated by all things Egyptian.

Sultry Cleopatra, as embodied by Elizabeth Taylor, or not, with asp or Richard Burton variously clutched to ample bosom. Strangely-bearded pharaohs. The sublime and mysterious Sphinx. Even the pyramids themselves, as monumental reality or compelling symbol.

(Check out the back of the next US dollar bill you find in your hip pocket. That pyramid with the disembodied eyeball floating above comprises one side of the Great Seal of the United States, thanks at least in part to George Washington’s status as a Freemason.)

Even the Bangles’ 1980s hit, "Walk Like an Egyptian", speaks to, or is that sings to that magical mystical place lined with kohl and gold and myrrh where the imagined exotic Egypt resides.

You don’t have to be an Edward Said buff to notice that, unlike Saddam’s gaunt face and all other things Muslim posed as terrifying in our post-9/11 world, Egypt doesn’t suffer from the same bad PR in "western" consciousness as does the "Middle" and even "Far" East.

At least part of the reason, or fault if you want something to blame, is that as Orientalism evolved in Europe in the early 1800s, Egypt straddled a special sort of schizophrenic place in the average colonial European mindset. It was far enough away, both literally and symbolically, to be romanticized as tantalizing and exotic, yet close enough to be similar and somewhat familiar, ergo not so strange and scary. It was also apparent that ancient Egypt had a pretty cool (read: advanced) civilization, and so it was adopted as a good and powerful thing to align yourself with, much like ancient Greece or Rome.

All of this has not been lost on the good folks at the British Museum, originators of the "Eternal Egypt" exhibit featured at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria until October 31. One good example of the strange-but-familiar spot Egypt occupies in our consciousness is the food stall the equally good folks at the Royal BC Museum created as part of the Egyptian marketplace.

The shopping list for food to replicate from the 3,000-year period covered by the exhibit includes everything from pomegranates and figs to flatbread, fish and fowl. In fact, other than a few exceptions such as your basic ibex and gazelles, it looks much like your own shopping list for the week.

Lettuce, leeks, garlic, onions (if you have any spares, use them in your next mummification to fill the hollows where the eyeballs once were), grapes, cukes, cabbage, olives (which were imported, just as they are today), honey, salt, milk, butter cheese, eggs, vegetable oil galore from sesame to flax, and a variety of meat, from beef to pork and mutton. Don’t forget the spices, including cinnamon, coriander, cumin, dill, fennel, marjoram, mustard, and thyme. And of course, the wine and beer.

Yes, you, too, drink like an Egyptian whenever you have a beer, or, more correctly, an ale, since the preservatives needed for true beer weren’t introduced until the Middle Ages. In fact, we have the ancient Egyptians to thank for the fundamentals of modern brewing, likewise for the basics used in making raised, or leavened, bread.

Of course, not everyone in the 3,000-year period covered by the exhibit ate the same things. Just like today, typical foods came and went, due to population shifts from immigration and the expansion of kingdoms (reference today George W. Bush or Macdonald’s), popular trends, plus the availability of products impacted by everything from changing weather to changing trade partners.

"A lot of what they ate is basically what we eat now. It’s really not that unusual," says Royal BC Museum public program assistant Tina Lowery. "That was part of the idea behind the marketplace – to show that daily life for ancient Egyptians wasn’t really that much different than life is for people now, for contemporary Egyptians and even for us. I mean, who hasn’t had hummus nowadays?"

Other than beef, which the upper class got to eat more often, and variety – for instance, nobles and the like enjoyed some 40 kinds of bread – diet was pretty much free from class distinctions. Furniture was sparse, and the lower classes ate from plates of clay, not silver and gold, but even the humblest homes had ample kitchens and storage areas for food. For eating was something of an art, and a pretty elevated one at that.

"The level of sophistication was surprising. It wasn’t just simple food – it was elaborate meals and very Egyptian Martha Stewart," Lowery says. "It was all about presentation and making sure it looked good as well as tasted good. I think they liked to eat.

"In the books, you see a lot of tomb paintings and illustrations of feasts and parties, where there is food and wine and beer — you know they had a good time."

Sound familiar?

Strangely sweet contradictions

Since access to bathing wasn’t the greatest, ancient Egyptians liked to cover themselves in scents. These were usually made up into honey-based pomades applied all over the skin. On some level it sounds lovely, but I’m also thinking here of the time factor compounding honey and dust, and honey and flies, not to mention honey and your favourite shirt or dress…

The honey thing also went to their heads, quite literally. In illustrations or paintings from the times, you’ve likely noticed the cones on ancient Egyptian heads, especially the women. Those were made from honey, oils and desirable scents. As the day progressed, the cone would gradually melt and drip down over the hair, infusing it with a pleasant aroma – and, realistically, far more – resulting in what was, for the time, a really good hair day.

Cook like an ancient Egyptian

If you’d like to bring a touch of the exotic to your next dinner party, try one of these recipes, courtesy of the British Museum. They are all authentic recipes from ancient Egypt. Want to spice up the party with an almost-authentic brew? Try Tut’s Tipple made by Victoria’s Spinnakers Brew Pub. They used an authentic recipe using emmer wheat, figs and aniseed, then toned it done to appeal to today’s palate.

HONEY OMELETTE

4 eggs

275 ml milk

15 ml olive oil

45 ml honey

Pepper to taste

Mix eggs, milk and oil together, pour into frying pan that has been preheated with a little oil and, thoroughly cook on one side. Turn out onto plate, pour the warmed honey over the omelette, sprinkle with pepper, and serve hot.

SWEET WINE CAKES

430 g flour

15 ml sweet white wine

Pinch of cumin

Pinch of aniseed

50 g animal fat

25 g finely chopped cheese

1 beaten egg

12 bay leaves.

Mix the flour, cumin and aniseed. Add wine. Rub in the fat, cheese and bind with the egg. Shape mixture into 12 small cakes and place each one on a bay leaf. Bake for about 25-30 minutes at 400 F (200 C).

HONEY CAKES

These can be made from the above recipe using any leftover sweet wine cakes. Remove stale crusts, put the remaining cakes into an oven-proof dish and steep them in milk. Cook at 350 F (180 C) for 20 minutes. Warm 45 ml of honey and pour over the cooked cakes, pricking the surface so the honey can be readily absorbed. Finally sprinkle with pepper and serve.

TIGER NUT SWEETS

Blend 200 g of fresh dates with a little water. Then add a little cinnamon and chopped walnuts to taste. Shape into balls, coat in honey, ground almonds and serve.

HUMMUS

225 g chickpeas

2 tbsp wine vinegar

3 cloves garlic

5 tbsp sesame oil

1 tsp salt

Cook and mash the chickpeas. Add lemon juice, chopped garlic and sesame oil to make this tasty spread, as popular in Egypt today as it was thousands of years ago.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who has always wanted to wrap herself in toilet paper to turn into a mummy for Halloween.