Egyptian Wheat Porridge

My Hebrew characters in Egypt have porridge for breakfast every day. Why? Because it feels like the right sort of food and timing.

The porridge is made from whole emmer grain, though sometimes it could be made from barley. Emmer wheat and barley are the two grains grown in Ancient Egypt.

“Porridge Milk and Vanilla Cheese” by Rubber Dragon is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 

While breakfast is somewhat of a modern invention, anyone doing hard labor all day needed to have a solid morning meal. My version of breakfast for them is hot porridge and leftover bread and other foods from the day before.

Once the laborers leave for the brickyards and fields (with more dinner leftovers in a basket for lunch), the kitchen workers pour the remaining porridge into the bread dough as they prepare it to be cooked fresh for dinner.

Egyptian wheat porridge goes by the name Belila. The photos on this site are gorgeous and don’t quite look like the (creative commons) photo I found. Do check it out. Another recipe is here.

Soak the grains overnight in water (this author adds some baking soda). In the morning, drain the wheat and cook in fresh water until soft, drain (or not), then add milk, flavoring (this author uses vanilla), and sugar. Egyptians then wouldn’t have had vanilla, but they had dates for sugar and various herbs and spices.

And they had livestock (cattle, sheep, and goats) to give them fresh milk. Depending on supplies, they could have used new whole milk in the porridge, or skim milk (after taking off cream for other purposes), or whey leftover after making cheese or yoghurt. Probably a mix.

Many wheat porridge recipes use cracked wheat, as it cooks faster and is creamier. For example, the similar dishes of frumenty from Western Europe in the Roman era and dalia from northern India and Pakistan. But Belila and some other recipes use it whole. Some of the grains will break apart with cooking but mostly they stay whole.

We have evidence that porridge or the equivalent was indeed added to dough, though these are cracked grains, not whole.

Some loaves are full of coarsely cracked cereal grains, but these were added deliberately to fine-textured dough made from well milled flour. The cracked grain was pre-cooked before being mixed into the bread dough, to create a sweet, chewy texture. These loaves resemble the multi-grain or granary loaves that we are familiar with today. Such additions indicate the variety of bread recipes that the ancient Egyptians used and they show that their staple food was not a monotonous product.

A new look at old bread: ancient Egyptian baking. November 1999, Archaeology International 3, Delwen Samuel, St Mary’s University, Twickenham.


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