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.

Dinner Date: Artemidora (90s CE)


“Artemidora, daughter of Harpokras, died untimely, aged 27. Farewell.”
~ Funerary inscription of Artemidora, 90s CE

The first thing I always notice about her is her hair. It’s a distinctive fusion of two styles: the mountain of coils bound with gold is purely Egyptian, but her fringe of curls is borrowed from the Flavian ladies of Rome. She wears more gold on her wrists, ears, and fingers and around her neck, which shows the first folds of age. Her skin is coppery, her eyebrows thick and sloping, her eyes wide. Her face is frozen in the beginnings of a hesitant smile, but not the cryptic “Archaic smile” of the oldest Greek art. It is the smile of someone who has just taken the hand of the psychopomp, jackal-headed Anubis or winged Hermes, ready to lead them to the next world. Frightened, but hopeful; happy to be going, but a little nervous all the same. Her name was Artemidora, Gift-of-Artemis. Today, you can find her sarcophagus in New York City, in the Met’s Egyptian galleries. But near the end of the first century, she lived in the Egyptian city of Cusae and was buried in the nearby necropolis of Meir. She lived. She died. She ate.


What can we say with certainty about Artemidora’s life?

We know from the splendor of her coffin that she was wealthy. Her father Harpokras must have been a local aristocrat and an important person in his community. In keeping with contemporary custom, she was probably married at the onset of puberty to a man older than her, perhaps by as much as ten or fifteen years. Likely her husband was as noble as her father. They may even have had the same father, as sibling marriage was not uncommon for upperclass Egyptians, even those of Greco-Roman extraction (the first Greek pharaoh to adopt this local custom was given the mocking moniker of Philadelphus, Sibling-Lover, by other Greeks).


Artemidora, side view. All photos are my own.

Egypt, long a multicultural society, was particularly so by the end of the first century. By then, it had been a province of Rome for one hundred and thirty years and ruled by a Greek elite for two centuries before that. Artemidora was part of that elite, whose culture and ancestry were a unique fusion of Egyptian, Greek and Roman. Not only her hairstyle but her clothing and the style of her coffin display a blend of these influences. She was adorned with icons of Egyptian deities but named after a Greek goddess.

For most of Artemidora’s lifetime, Rome was ruled by the increasingly draconian Emperor Domitian, who tried to purge subversive influence by expelling Rome’s philosophers. Hated by the Senate in his final years, Domitian was assassinated in a political coup in the year 96. All eyes were on Rome in Artemidora’s time, and she and her family surely had their own opinions on the Emperor’s paranoid antics. Perhaps they whispered about the tragic scandal that marred Domitian’s private life: the extramarital affair he conducted with his own niece Julia Flavia, whose sudden death, some said, resulted from a forced abortion. This story has an eerie 20th-century parallel in the relationship between Hitler and his niece Geli Raubal, who would also die young under suspicious circumstances.

Artemidora died at 27 (as did Julia Flavia). By the time they reached that age, most first-century women had experienced pregnancy and motherhood, and many had experienced losing a child. In the Roman world, half of all children died before the age of ten, a quarter of them before age one. Birth was dangerous for mother and baby alike, and Artemidora might have died in childbirth, or from illness or accident. However she died, her “untimely” passing was mourned by her family and celebrated with creation; in this case, the creation of art in her likeness. In the spirit of this tradition, the following meal is dedicated to the memory of Artemidora, gone before her time, in another time. χαῖρε!


Artemidora’s cuisine, like so much else about her, was likely a mixture of Greek, Roman and Egyptian elements. How much came from what culture is difficult to say with certainty. It might have varied from meal to meal, and depending on who was working in the kitchen and whether there were guests in the home. Amongst the three cultures there were broad culinary similarities, but many differences, including in how food was served and eaten. Romans and Greeks had food brought by servants to a communal table, but Egyptians had servants carry trays of food around the room and offer them to guests, cocktail hour-style. Roman men and women dined together. Greek women dined separately, after the men. Egyptian men and women dined together but were seated separately.

We know that the Greeks who settled in Egypt did not wholly give up their native diet. In the Deipnosophistae, an important text on Ancient Greek cuisine, the Greco-Egyptian author describes a feast served in his hometown that has no Egyptian features whatsoever: a simple, hearty meal of pork and vegetables on top of bread, with wine to drink. Pork was unpopular with native Egyptians, but their cuisine made full use of the region’s native flora and fauna, from tiger nuts and papyrus shoots to Nile tilapia and Egyptian goose. Artemidora might have enjoyed Egyptian delicacies like hedgehog, which was baked in a crust of clay so that the spines would come off when the clay was cracked open, or chickens hatched in specially-designed ancient incubators. Her family’s wealth would have enabled them to acquire ingredients out of the reach of most Egyptians, such as red meat, imported dried spices and Greek wine. They may have joined other Greek aristocrats in spurning local beer as the drink of peasants and farmers. Egypt was the breadbasket of the Roman Empire, and Artemidora probably enjoyed wheat bread, from flour milled as white as was possible in her time.


Not pictured (mercifully?): the author eating this meal ancient style, with no utensils and using the bread as a napkin.

For my own dinner for Artemidora, I chose to start the meal with a salad of romaine lettuce dressed with olive oil, white wine vinegar, garlic, coriander, cumin and rue; a mixture of ingredients popular with Greeks, Egyptians and both. While bitter lettuces had been known in Egypt since ancient times, eating the greens as a starter course was first popularized there by Greeks and Romans during the reign of Domitian; i.e., Artemidora’s lifetime. The main course is roast loin of pork in a nod to Greek tastes, but basted with an Egyptian-style sauce of honey, vinegar and spices, including fragrant fenugreek and tart, lemony sumac. The siton, the grain backbone of a Greek meal, is white wheat bread, sourdough in imitation of many ancient breads. I enjoyed it as Artemidora would have done; with my fingers, and wine.

The lady Gift-of-Artemis reclines at a banquet in her finest jewels. Her eyes are blackened with kohl past her eyelids, and her coiled wig drips perfume. Beneath draperies and wreaths of flowers, the men and women of Cusae dine together, in the Roman style. She speaks to them in Greek, but calls to a servant in Coptic for more wine.

Servers circulate around the room in the Egyptian style, offering different delicacies on trays. A young man brings a dish before her; sliced pork in a reddish sauce. Artemidora smiles, inhaling the scent of honey and spices. Delicately, her henna-dyed fingers lift a slice of meat to her painted mouth. She chews, swallows, sips wine from the refilled glass at her side.

“Agathós esti,” she mutters with a smile. “It’s good!”