Tilapia Stew with Barley (Egyptian, ca. 3500 BCE)

img_2848.jpg“I behold the tilapia in its true nature, guiding the speedy boat in its waters.”
~ From The Book of Coming Forth Into the Light, better known as The Book of the Dead, 2nd or 1st millennium BCE

In a prehistoric Egyptian tomb of the fourth millennium BCE, archaeologists unearthed a rare surprise. Unlike the carefully dissected mummies of later Egyptian history, whose innards were cleansed and removed to canopic jars, one of the bodies in this early tomb had its digestive system intact, complete with stomach contents. Analysis revealed the last meal of this early Egyptian: a simple soup of barley, green onion, and tilapia.

Today, tilapia has achieved fame for its versatility and economy as a food source. The fish breeds quickly in captivity, can tolerate cramped conditions, and eats almost anything plant-based, making it cheap and easy to farm. Its mild white flesh is inoffensive to palates unaccustomed to seafood and readily accepts a range of seasonings. After carp, tilapia is the world’s most-commonly farmed fish, riding a wave of popularity that took off in the 1980s and shows no sign of slowing down. But thousands of years ago in Egypt, the fish simply called in was already being raised in enclosed ponds and captured with nets and spears from the life-giving Nile River. The tilapia species most-commonly eaten today is still known, appropriately, as the Nile tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus).


The Greek historian Herodotus remarked in 440 BCE how much the Egyptians cherished their animals. They let them sleep in their homes, mourned them when they died, and worshipped them as living gods. It’s no surprise then that the Nile tilapia was featured in Egyptian culture, art and religion as prominently as in the Egyptian diet. A popular shape for bottles and makeup palettes, tilapia was represented by its very own hieroglyphK1. The fish was believed to help guide the Boat of the Sun as it sailed across the sky, as in the above quote from The Book of the Dead, a compendium of magic spells for ushering spirits to the afterlife. Tilapia was also associated with Hathor, the goddess of love and women, and considered a symbol of fertility and renewal. Such lofty significance may have stemmed from a misinterpretation of tilapia behavior. When danger threatens, the tiny baby fish swim into their mother’s mouth for protection (a phenomenon called mouth-brooding, also observed in other fish species). Ancient people who saw tilapia fry emerging from mom’s mouth may have believed the adult fish was miraculously creating the babies.

Egyptians would not have recognized today’s supermarket tilapia, white, cleaned and vacuum-sealed. Not only did the Egyptians consume every part of the fish, they ate only the dark tilapia now referred to as “wild-type.” The color of a tilapia has no effect on its flavor, but because many modern consumers prefer white fish, commercial fisheries now rely on pinkish “red tilapia.” These fish have been selectively bred for a genetic lack of pigment called leucism, the same mutation which produces white tigers. And the modification of farmed tilapia doesn’t stop with their genes. Keeping these ancient symbols of fertility in mixed-sex groups leads to unmanageable population growth, so today’s farmers give the sexless baby tilapia food laced with hormones, causing most of them to develop into males.


IMG_2855This recipe is modified from Cooking in Ancient Civilizations by Cathy Kaufman (2006), one of my favorite sources for reconstructed ancient recipes. The original Egyptian stew this recipe was based on contained bones, fins and scales, but for the pictures above I was only able to obtain cleaned tilapia fillets. If you can find yourself a whole tilapia or a similarly mild white fish like catfish or sea bream, use it. As a wise woman (Maangchi) once said, don’t be afraid of fishbones, especially in soup! They add extra flavor, and when fish is properly cooked the meat falls off the bone easily.

Fish farms contribute to water pollution and the spread of fish diseases, but some have less of an impact than others. Tilapia farmed in the USA, Canada and Ecuador are the most ecologically friendly choice.

-1/2 cup barley
-3 cups water
-4 scallions/green onions, washed and sliced (use the entire scallion, including the root. The roots will give more flavor to the soup and will be removed before serving, taking another page from Maangchi’s book.)
-2 tilapia fillets or 1 whole, cleaned tilapia (or similar white fish)
-salt to taste

Rinse the barley and place in a saucepan with the water. Bring to a boil, add just the roots of the scallions, and simmer for 30 minutes. Use a spoon to skim off any foam that rises to the top (excess starch from the barley).

Remove the scallion roots. Cut the tilapia into chunks (if you’re using a whole fish, keep the skin, bones and fins). Add the fish to the water and cook for about 10 minutes over medium heat. Lower the heat, add the rest of the scallions and cook for 5 minutes more.

Taste and add salt as needed. Serve hot.


The fish releases some oil into the soup, and I find that it doesn’t need much seasoning to taste delicious, though you could also add garlic, butter or spices. It’s a simple, hearty meal that will have you landing solidly in Ancient Egypt.

Ancient Recipe: Ptisane [Barley Water] (Greek, at least 5th century BCE)

“[Barley] groats belong to the wheat family. They have juice that is quite nourishing and tenacious.”
~ Aelius Galenus (Galen), De alimentorum facultatibus (On the Properties of Foodstuffs), early 2nd century CE


Continuing my tradition of posting every ancient beverage I make in this glass…

Even after wheat bread became the favorite of the Mediterranean world, barley retained special significance as the first grain eaten by mankind, the primordial source of sustenance. The Greeks ingested their precious barley in many forms: as bread, as roasted flour or maza (a recipe I reconstructed here), and in beverages like kykeon and ptisane (πτισάνη, ptee-sah-nay).

While the peoples of the Ancient Near East made barley into beer, Greek kykeon and ptisane were not fermented, although both could be mixed with wine. The two are often confused with one another, equated as the same in a grammar lexicon of the fourth century. And both seem to have blurred the lines between our modern categories of food versus drink. In Homer’s Iliad, goat cheese is grated over a kykeon before serving, and later writers like the 12th-century Eustathius describe it as a thick barley soup. Hippocrates in the 5th century BCE mentions ptisane variations containing whole barley grains and warns that these must be cooked to their maximum softness, lest they expand in the stomach and cause indigestion (this perfectly reasonable warning is repeated centuries later by the physician Galen, quoted above).

So what was the difference between kykeon and ptisane? One clue can be found in the etymology of their names. Kykeon literally means “mixture”; ptisane comes from the verb ptíssein, to peel or crush. The main ingredient in kykeon is alphita, ground barley meal or flour, while the word ptisane can refer to hulled (peeled) barley grains as well as the drink made from them. In surviving literature, ptisane exists in strained and unstrained forms; kykeon does not. So while kykeon resembled modern grits or polenta, ptisane consisted of whole grains cooked in water, or, if strained, barley water.

This red-figure vase from around 490 BCE, by an artist named Brygos, is believed by some to depict the kykeon scene in the Iliad, when an enslaved woman named Hecamede prepares a wine and cheese kykeon for the elderly King Nestor. Others identify these figures as the old warrior Phoenix with the enslaved Briseis (there are a lot of enslaved women in the Iliad…)

Aside from being nutritious and plentiful, water leftover from cooking grain would have been safer to drink than fresh water in ancient times, having been boiled. Even today, barley water is enjoyed wherever barley is grown, from sweet jau ka sattu in Pakistan and roasted barley tea in East Asia to the Robinson brand lemon barley water traditionally served to players at Wimbledon. Through Latin tisana, Greek ptisane gives rise to the archaic French and English word tisane (tee-zahn), which can refer to barley water or any type of herbal tea.

Hippocrates and Galen both write at length about the properties and variations of ptisane, though they are more concerned with its medicinal than its culinary value. Hippocrates recommended ptisane for the healthy and the sick alike; indeed, barley is rich in fiber, niacin, thiamine, and other valuable nutrients. Galen rightfully considers unstrained ptisane more nutritious than strained, but he acknowledges the popularity of strained barley water when he uses it as a generic example of a liquid people consume, along with soups (rofēma) and milk, in his treatise on the human digestive system.

Galen mentions many possibilities for flavoring barley water–olive oil, salt, cumin, honeyed wine, vinegar–but he himself recommends dill and leeks. My recipe includes honey and two of the most popular herbs in Ancient Greek cuisine: mint and oregano. As both kykeon and ptisane were general terms referring to a preparation technique, we can assume they varied based on personal taste, what else the chef had on hand, and whether the liquid food was meant to fortify or refresh.


1 cup barley
6 cups water
1 tablespoon honey
A few sprigs each of fresh mint and/or oregano

Bring the water to a boil over medium-low heat. Add the barley, cover and simmer for 20-25 minutes until the barley is cooked.

Remove from the heat and strain out the barley, reserving the water in a bowl. Save the cooked barley for another recipe (unless you wish to incur the wrath of Demeter, Greek goddess of grain).

While the water is still hot, add the honey and herbs. Remove the herbs after 20 minutes and stir thoroughly to ensure the honey dissolves.

Like other forms of tea, ptisane can be enjoyed hot or cold.



The delicate, milky flavor of barley water takes on a light sweetness from the honey and a slight spiciness from the the oregano and mint. I find it really refreshing when served ice cold, although that’s not particularly Ancient Greek.

In my classes on Ancient Greek cuisine and the Eleusinian Mysteries (secret religious rites in which kykeon was ritually consumed) I’ve served this recipe in place of kykeon. My first attempts at recreating kykeon didn’t go over so well with a modern audience, but I’m determined to figure out an appetizing version of Homer’s cheesy grits with wine. Stay tuned for further barley experiments!