Ancient Egyptian(ish) Beer: c. 1800 B.C.

It’s one of the oldest drinks in the world. People have brewed it for millennia for a variety of reasons ranging from religious and solemn (as in sacred offerings or rituals), to the less noble but much more fun (as in going to the pub with friends – remember that?!)

Beer, or more accurately craft beer, is something that certain types of people take very seriously. You know the type, don’t pretend. Friends of mine who know about this stuff talk passionately about ‘hoppiness’ and ‘fermenting yeast’ while I nod along, desperately and hopelessly lost, wondering when’s the best time to mention that I can’t stand any of it – be it ale or lager, craft or commercial.

I’m sorry, it just tastes like soapy water to me. Perhaps I’ve never tried a good one, I hear you cry. My husband is quite into his hipster craft stuff, though, and even these brews – with their funky label designs and heritage signposting – still taste disgusting to me.

The thing is, though, I’ve been writing this blog for almost a year now. Stews and soups and pies and cakes are all well and good, but as time’s gone on, especially as I’ve looked at more ancient stuff, I can’t help but feel I’ve neglected a huge part of food history by ignoring beer. It was such an essential part of everyday life for our ancestors that I felt obligated to give it a go. And so I embarked on what was possibly the most half hearted, begrudging beer brewing process the world has ever seen.

A note on guesswork and adaptation

She looks like she loves her job. Credit here.

I’m dealing with ancient Egyptian beer here, for which there are no surviving recipes. Or if there are, they’re in hieroglyphs which is all, er, Greek to me. Equally, as I found beer brewing to be a totally alien concept, I chose to copy the process that Tasha Marks, Michaela Charles and Susan Boyle (no, not that one) set out when they recreated a version of ancient beer for the British Museum, rather than interpret it for myself.

These women talk a lot more about the science and history behind beer making (and their results are better too), so please do go and check out their post. I mean it; they have a video and everything. Andrew Coletti at Pass the Flamingo has also looked at ancient beer in brilliant depth with some great results, and I used his excellent blog post to guide me on the more practical aspects of this experiment.

The ancient Egyptians loved beer. Couldn’t get enough of the stuff. They had loads of names for it depending on how it was used, or who it was for, or who had made it. In fact, such was the Egyptian preoccupation with beer that they’re often praised as being among the first – if not the first – civilisation to really nail the brewing process. They can’t quite claim to be the inventors of beer, though – that accolade goes to the Sumerians.

Sumerian beer appears to have been a concoction so thick that it had to be drunk through a straw (another Sumerian invention), and was perhaps diplomatically described as an acquired taste “to certain palates” by the Greek writer Xenophon. The Egyptians refined the Sumerian method over time – still favouring the straw, but gradually moving away from a porridge like drink to a smoother, runnier liquid. That’s not to say it was thin or weak, though.

Beer: humanity’s salvation?

In fact, Egyptians relied on beer not being weak. According to one Egyptian myth, the sun god Ra became angry with the people of Egypt when they stopped following his laws. He calmly and logically weighed up his options and decided that in order to lovingly guide his people back to the ways of justice and order, a good old fashioned genocidal purging was needed. He sent his daughter Sekhmet to earth in the form of a lion. There, she ravaged the land and the people until Egypt ran crimson with blood.

At this point, Ra had a slightly-too-late change of heart, and took pity on the blood soaked earth. Perhaps he realised that he was in danger of ceasing to exist if all his followers were eaten? (Ooh, philosophy!) He called Sekhmet off, but she was so full of vengeance and bloodlust that she ignored his orders. Rather than send down another lion to devour the first lion he’d sent to devour the people (like some sort of divine, fly swallowing old lady), he decided to change tact. He poured a thousand jugs of pomegranate stained beer into the Nile, which turned the water red. Sekhmet, believing it to be blood, drank it all and became immediately so shitfaced that she passed out for several days straight. When she woke up, the hangover was presumably so intense that her desire for maiming and destroying had waned, and humanity was saved.

A thousand jugs, eh?

I was not about to make a thousand jugs of humanity-saving beer. Having heard horror stories of home brews gone wrong I was pretty sure that if anything my beer would end up threatening humanity’s existence. More specifically, one human’s existence. Mine.

The starting point for Marks, Charles and Boyle’s creation came from engravings on a clay tablet dating to c. 1800 B.C. This tablet was a hymn to Ninkasi – the Sumerian goddess of beer – who apparently brewed a fresh batch every day as part of her holy rituals. The tablet helpfully details the brewing process, and it was this process which acted as guidelines for the experiments. It’s worth noting here that though the inspiration is Sumerian, the technique (and most of the ingredients) are Egyptian, hence the title ‘ancient Egyptian beer’.

The hymn makes reference to ‘beer bread’ as a starting point in the brewing process. This was a common technique in Mesopotamia whereby leavened loaves were partially baked and then crumbled over pots. Water was poured over the crumbs and the whole mixture was left to ferment for a couple of days before being drunk as beer.

The Egyptians of the Old Kingdom followed this method too but by time of the New Kingdom a new method had emerged. Instead of making little loaves to start with, they made two mashes – a hot one and a cold one. Analysis on pots of ancient beer have shown that the cold mash was made with malted grains and the hot one with either malted or unmalted – the results were unclear. This is a good time to also point out that there were no hops used in the beer brewing process as hops weren’t used until around the 9th century.

The mashes were mixed together, strained, and left to ferment out in the open for a day or two. That was it – end of process. Despite the fact I tend to zone out after two minutes when anyone talks to me about beer, I’d managed to learn enough to know that the Egyptian way seemed suspiciously simple. Where was the carefully controlled heating? The sterilising and meticulous monitoring to prevent unwanted cross-contamination in the yeast? And, bloody hell, had anyone even thought about designing a quirky and original label for the bottle yet?!

The process begins…

First things first I had to get hold of some malted grains. My choice of grain was the only area I deviated from the British Museum’s version. I had a bag of einkorn grains in the cupboard (no, really, I did. My husband uses it as evidence every time he tries to show me that this blog has got out of control.) Einkorn was grown in Mesopotamia from as far back as 10,000 years ago and though there is some disagreement online about whether it was commonly used in Egypt, I decided to work with it because a) it was a fitting tribute to the origins of this experiment and b) when else was I going to use a bag of einkorn grain otherwise?

To start the malting process I placed the grains in a jug of water and left them to soak overnight. The next day I drained the water and spread the grains out in a tray. I sprinkled on a little more water so they were wet but not submerged, covered them with a cloth so that air could get to them but insects couldn’t, and left them on the windowsill for three days. After this time they had grown little tendrils, a bit like eyes on potatoes. After I baked them low and slow for a couple of hours they were ready to be ground.

A sample of sprouted vs. unsprouted grains.

Despite my husband’s belief that my hobby has taken over our lives, I am yet to own a quernstone – it’s on my Christmas list. Because of this, I had to grind the grains little by little in a mortar and pestle. Let me tell you, for those of you who have never done this, it was Not Fun. It took well over half an hour to pulverise even just 100g of grain and at the end of it my FitBit told me I’d done 13 minutes of active cardio – a personal best if ever I saw one.

Ground and unground malted einkorn. I have a new found respect for bakers and brewers of pre-blender times.

For the unmalted mash I decided to do something different and used barley; a common and popular grain of ancient Egypt. I ground another 100g of this, sweating and swearing like I imagine all Egyptian brewers must have done (or perhaps not if they had the right tools – hint hint, J.)

The malted einkorn was then added to room temperature water while the barley was added to water that had recently boiled but was warm rather than hot. The barley was then heated further until it thickened to a porridge like consistency and smelled, well, porridgy and delicious. I mixed both mashes together in a large pan and left the lot to cool completely.

Homebase: the place for all your DIY, garden and ancient cookery needs

The Egyptians brewed their beer in ceramic vessels that looked like tall flowerpots. I didn’t need much more of an excuse, so popped off to Homebase to purchase a terracotta pot. The trouble was that all the pots had holes in the bottom of them to allow water to drain out of. As I explained to the bemused shop assistant, this simply wouldn’t do. Were there any plugs I could buy to stop the hole up? He offered me some sort of plastic tray and backed away slowly, but it didn’t really do the trick.

I was then struck with inspiration, perhaps sent from Ninkasi herself. I could stop up the hole by using a barley flour dough, mixed to the consistency of putty. It wouldn’t be adding anything that wasn’t already in the mixture, and should fill the gap nicely. For the first time ever, an improvised idea of mine worked! The hole suitably plugged and tested with water, I lay a circle of baking paper over the base as an extra precaution, and poured my two now-cool mashes through a sieve into the pot.

Following the method of Marks, Charles and Boyle, I added a date to speed up fermentation, and an aromatic spice mix of crushed roasted pistachios, rose petals, cumin, coriander and sesame seeds. I covered the pot with a thin cheesecloth and left it to fester – sorry, ferment – for a couple of days.

Waste not want not

In the meantime I pondered what to do with my leftover grains sitting in the sieve and thought back to the beer bread. Despite having no proof I felt sure the ancient Egyptians – or any ancient civilisation used to facing droughts, famines or just slightly poor harvests – would have thought twice about throwing food away if it could be transformed into anything even vaguely edible.

I blitzed some dates to a pulp (in a blender, thanks. I wasn’t about to do anything by hand again), and combined the paste with the leftover grain dough. To this I sprinkled in a spoon of the spice mix and patted the mixture into four round discs, which were baked in a low oven for about an hour. They tasted decent enough – a bit molasses-y and nutty, with a powerful spicy punch from the coriander and cumin. I think they’d work well with a sharp cheese, although I ate one on its own without any fuss.

After two days I couldn’t put the terracotta pot sitting on my kitchen counter out of my thoughts any longer. The Egyptians drank their beer straight out of the pots with long straws but I hadn’t made enough to come up to a level that a straw could reach, so I ended up having to pour it into a glass and then wait for it to settle a bit. I somehow ended up with more sediment than drinkable liquid, but there was definitely something there.

The verdict

It smelled unpleasant. Kind of sour, kind of cheesy; not like something I’d normally want anywhere near my mouth. However, I was confident that I’d followed all the instructions and there was no visible mould at least, so I took a gulp.

This would cost you £5 in Shoreditch.

My first mouthful contained too much sediment – a gritty texture with a slight bread-dipped-in-vinegar flavour. I felt my salivary glands go into overtime to combat the sourness of it. Bugger, I thought, it’s gone bad. All that effort for no reward. I’d already eaten a chocolate bar to combat my 13 minutes of active cardio, so I really did have nothing to show for all my work at this point.

Once the sediment had died down a bit more I took a sip of the clearer liquid on top. This was a lot more palatable. It was lighter and thinner than the thick lumpy mixture at the bottom, for a start. It tasted sour, yes, but in a sharp way – a bit like a cheap white wine. The spices weren’t a prominent flavour, but I did pick up a hint of cumin. Whether that was my imagination playing tricks on me or the effects of overzealous seasoning is anyone’s guess, but it wasn’t unpleasant either way. Helen Strudwick explains “the quality of beer depended on both the skill of the brewer and the sugar content…” and while I wouldn’t say my skill was amazing, I didn’t use any added sugar (other than one measly date) and it turned out alright.

I have no idea what the alcohol content was, but research suggests the average Egyptian beer had a 3% – 4% alcohol content. Beer for workers was probably around 2% – the last thing a pharaoh wanted was wonky noses on all his sphinxes because his workers were too pissed to see straight. The content and quality was higher depending on who the beer was for (pharaohs got highest) and how the beer would be used (religious ceremonies got high quality beer, workers taking payment in beer got lower quality.)

As you can see, my enthusiasm for grinding barley was somewhat lacking.

At the end of all this my opinions on beer haven’t really changed. I’d still pick a sugary sweet cocktail over a pint, and I haven’t developed a passion for home brewing (much to my husband’s relief.) Yet it wasn’t as bad as I’d expected. It smelled awful, true, but it was light and drinkable and definitely alcoholic – which is about the limits of my appreciation for beer anyway. All in all, not bad.

E x

Ancient Egyptian(ish) Beer

200g sprouted grain (wheat, barley, einkorn, emmer – any will do)
200g unsprouted grain
1l water
1 date
Handful of pistachios
1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon sesame seeds
1 teaspoon rose petals

  1. Grind your sprouted grain to a coarse flour. Add about 500ml of room temperature water to the grain and stir well.
  2. Grind your unsprouted grain. Add 500ml of recently boiled water to the grain and stir. The water should be warm to touch, but not boiling.
  3. Heat the unsprouted grain and hot water mixture until it thickens to a porridge like consistency.
  4. Pour both mashes into a large pot and allow to cool completely.
  5. When the mashes have cooled together, place a sieve over a ceramic pot. Pour the mashes into the sieve and allow the liquid to drip into the ceramic pot.
  6. Toast and crush the spices and place them in a muslin bag or cloth. Place the spice bag in the pot with the liquid. Add the date to the pot.
  7. Cover the pot with a cheesecloth or similar and leave it at room temperature for no more than a couple of days.

Soutil Brouet d’Angleterre: c. 1300

Yesterday was the 954th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, which was fought on 14th October 1066. But of course you knew that already, didn’t you? I bet you spent the whole day wishing everyone a Merry Battle of Hastings and couldn’t wait to see what William had left under the tree. Personally I think Battle of Hastings Day gets more and more commercialised every year, but my daughter loves it so we carry on with the tradition.

Fun fact: as well as being a hell of a year, 1066 is also the code to every school gate everywhere in the world. Okay, maybe not every school gate, but most of them. Two of them, at least. My sister used to play county badminton and would spend every weekend competing in school sports halls around the country. Usually these halls were opened before the athletes arrived but one day my dad and sister pulled up to find a gaggle of kids and parents standing forlornly outside the hall, locked out. The lights were on and inside there were the sounds of people warming up (competitors who had locked their competition out in an effort to forfeit the match?) but no one could get the door open.

My dad, a teacher himself and never one to let common sense or law stop him, marched through the crowd and stood in front of the locked door. He paused and then punched in the code 1-0-6-6. The lock clicked open and a surge of tracksuited kids rushed past him, followed by their parents – all of them ignoring the legality of what had just happened in favour of a styrofoam cup of instant coffee.

I know how this sounds, but it’s completely true. It was like a scene from an action movie, only the hero was a frazzled middle-aged man who just wanted to get in and sit down, and the adoring crowds watching him were mostly kids who needed a wee. Still, I think he probably had some sort of epic soundtrack playing in his head when the door swung open.

Once mum had forced him to explain himself and call the caretaker to suggest they update their security, he told us it was because his school used the same code and he thought it “might be worth a try.”*

Back to the battle?

You all know the story, let’s not pretend here – Bayeux Tapestry, arrow in the eye (or was it?) yada yada.

In an effort to keep this post to a reasonable length, you can find out here why most of the stuff you think you know about the Battle of Hastings is wrong. In short – Harold might not have been killed with an arrow and the Bayeux Tapestry uses a huge amount of artistic license with many of the events of the battle.

Not a real part of the tapestry but still a good excuse to post my favourite meme ever.

Once Harold had been suitably dispatched (be it by arrow, sword or death squad), William sat on the battlefield and had his first meal as Conqueror. Accounts tell us it was roasted meat, possibly mutton or beef, which he ate among the bodies of the dead and dying, having left the English soldiers to rot on the battlefield. Not quite what you’d call fine dining.

William was crowned King of England on Christmas Day 1066. Apparently the crowd cheered so loudly during his coronation that the Norman guards outside Westminster Abbey thought a fight had broken out, and set fire to Anglo Saxon houses in retaliation. It set an appropriate tone for William’s early years as king, and he wasted no time in enforcing his will over his new kingdom.

As the current Norman England GCSE spec will tell you, Norman lords replaced most of the Anglo Saxon nobility, the language of the rich became French, and motte and bailey castles were erected in most major towns as a both an enduring symbol of Norman power and a method of ensuring the English population behaved themselves. But though these changes had huge and long term effects on the country as a whole, day to day life for the average peasant didn’t change that much. There was still ploughing to be done and animals to be fed, it was just that now their local lords were all called Jean or Henri and there was a faint whiff of smoke in the air as William’s (or should that be Guillaume’s) soldiers burned rebellious towns to the ground in an effort to maintain Norman control.

Food in Norman England

It might be easy to think that, almost 1000 years later, we English are finally free of Norman influences. Sure, we might still visit the odd castle when we need to check our eyesight, but the everyday effects of William’s conquest have long gone, right?

Well, not quite. Not when it comes to food at least.

One popular theory for why we have words such as ‘pork’ today is that the French equivalent ‘porc’ was brought over to England after 1066 and used at the dining tables of the rich (who were usually French themselves, or otherwise Anglo Saxons trying to curry favour with their continental counterparts.) As time went on these Norman words filtered down the social classes to become part of everyday language, even in people who could not usually afford to eat meat regularly. There’s been a lot written about this theory online but I couldn’t find definitive ‘proof’ of it, so if anyone knows anything more about this etymological aspect of history please let me know!

What I did find evidence of was that consumption of pork increased in England in the years following 1066. A recent study concluded that though the Anglo Saxon diet of vegetables, cereals and meat such as beef and mutton remained largely intact, and that cooking methods among the poor remained virtually unchanged, certain foods such as pork and chicken rose in prominence.

It was this discovery that spurred me on to find a medieval French pork recipe in honour of 1066, the Battle of Hastings and our Norman overlords – and it was typing that last sentence that made me realise what a suck up I am; if I’d been around in 1066 I reckon I’d have been waiting at Pevensey Bay for William to arrive, holding a banner saying “WELCOME TO ENGLAND, PLEASE HELP YOURSELF!”

Subtle English Brouet

Soutil brouet d’Angleterre. Prené chastaingnez cuitez et pelés, et moiaux de eufs cuis et ung pou de foie de porc; broier tout ensemble, destrampés d’un pou de eaue tiede, coulez; affinez gingembre, canelle, garingal, poivre long, graine, de saffren; fetez boullir ensemble.

Subtle English brouet. Grind together chestnuts that have been cooked and peeled, egg yolks cooked in wine, and a little pork liver, moisten this with a little warm water and strain it. Grind ginger, cinnamon, cloves, long pepper, grains of paradise, galingale, spikenard, and saffron for colour, and boil everything together.

The Viander of Taillevent, An Edition of All Extant Manuscripts. Edited by Terence Scully.

The recipe comes from the early 14th century French work Le Viandier de Taillevent, which exists in four surviving manuscripts. It is generally attributed to Guillaume Tirel, master cook to Charles V of France, but the earliest version of the manuscript dates to around 10 years before Tirel’s birth, calling into question the true authorship.

There are a few pork recipes in Le Viandier and I pondered over which one to pick. Should I go for something simple, like roasted pork in a verjuice sauce or something a bit more ‘out there’, like boiled pork tripe? I know – it was a tough one.

A quick scan of the pork tripe recipe ensured my curiosity was cut short when I read that, once cooked, it would “smell of dung”. But another recipe underneath caught my eye: subtle English brouet.

From a 15th century version of Le Viandier. Credit here.

The recipe

It seemed fitting for the context: a French recipe with a possible English connection (incidentally, if anyone knows what the connection actually is, I’d be grateful if you could let me know!)

In this case the word ‘subtle’ didn’t relate to any complexity of the dish, but instead was intended to highlight how easy the dish was to digest. During this time the theory of the 4 humours was prevalent, (the belief that the body contained four liquids which, when imbalanced, caused illness), and foods were described as subtle to tell the reader they were not likely to cause a humoural imbalance. Could it have been that this dish was intended for invalids or those considered particularly vulnerable to illness? A medieval French dish to stave off sickness made on the 954th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings during a global pandemic – surely there had never been a more timely meal?!

Terence Scully went on to explain that the composition of the dish, with its finely ground and blended ingredients, would ensure a fairly homogeneous result. This might also account for the term ‘subtle’ – to distinguish it from other brouets which had chunks of meat or bread in them.

So what was a brouet? There are several brouet recipes in Le Viandier alone. The Middle English Compendium describes brouet as a meat or fish broth, sauce or stew. The addition of saffron in this particular recipe suggested I was looking to end up with a fairly smooth yellow soup.

The method

I began by poaching two egg yolks in white wine. While they were cooking, I blitzed some pork liver with some cooked and peeled chestnuts. When the eggs had cooked almost all the way through, I added them to the mixture.

I have to say that it did not look pleasant or fill me with hope. A combination of liver, eggs and nuts may have been considered subtle 700 years ago, but it seemed pretty bloody outrageous to my modern sensibilities. Nevertheless I persevered.

The whole mixture was tipped into a pan and I added a bit of water to loosen everything up – after all, this was meant to be some sort of broth. To this I added ground ginger, cinnamon, cloves, long pepper, ground grains of paradise, galangal paste, and saffron. The only thing I couldn’t get hold of in the original recipe was spikenard (no, I had no idea either), which seemed to be sold only as an “essential oil” on dubious websites, and since I didn’t fancy poisoning myself I decided to skip it. I left the lot to boil and hoped it would mellow out.

Left to right: grains of paradise, galangal paste, long pepper, saffron, cinnamon, ginger, cloves.

It seemed very stodgy in the pan, no matter how much water I added. I read through the recipe again and saw I was supposed to strain the liver mixture to ensure a very smooth, thin soup. So, once it was cooked, I dutifully mashed the lot through a sieve, which led to a thin broth collecting in the bowl alongside an amount of very smooth meat paste. The paste and broth were mixed together and I called my unsuspecting husband to lunch.

The verdict

Mmm…pungent offal broth.

Let’s face it: this dish wasn’t exactly a looker. In its favour, though, was the fact it did both smell and look like a broth for invalids – in that it was the sort of thing no well person would ever want to try.

“It’s very…medieval”, my husband said, pinching his nose.

I tried it. Despite its somewhat lacklustre appearance it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as I’d been expecting. I’m not an offal fan at all, but I found the taste of this quite bearable. The meat flavour was less intense and much sweeter than I’d expected, possibly because it was being masked by the chestnuts. It was still obviously offal, but in a relatively inoffensive way. The consistency was thin and smooth, but grainy – a bit like homemade pea and ham soup.

The second taste I noticed were the spices as a mixture of warming pepper and ginger gave way to saffron and cloves. Having such warming spices in the dish would have been a deliberate choice by the cook; in the 4 humour theory, pork was considered a cold and wet food, and spices such as ginger and pepper were hot and dry. Therefore the two ingredients were needed to balance each other out and ensure no one type of humour became corrupted – and therefore cause illness – once the dish was eaten.

Weirdly I think I liked this more than my husband did. That’s not to say I was slurping ladlefuls of the stuff, just that I could see how it would have been a warming and even comforting dish for the 14th century. My empathy only got me so far, though – after a few spoons I was done, and I don’t think I’d make it again in a hurry. Pungent offal broth, no matter how surprisingly sweet and spicy, just isn’t on my list of favoured foods.

And so another Battle of Hastings Day drew to a close. The decorations were returned to the attic for another year, the costumes were hung up at the back of the wardrobe. My daughter played with her new bow and arrow set, aiming for our eyes as we swung at her with swords and later we all settled down to look at pictures of the Bayeux Tapestry together. Classic.

E x

*This was a few years ago so the codes should have been updated now. Hopefully. It’ll be on someone’s To Do list at least.

Soutil Brouet d’Angleterre

2 egg yolks
150g cooked and peeled chestnuts
200g pork liver
White wine for poaching
Ground ginger
Ground cinnamon
Ground cloves
Ground long pepper
Ground grains of paradise
Ground galangal
Few strands of saffron

  1. Poach the egg yolks in the white wine.
  2. While the eggs are cooking, blend the liver and chestnuts together to form a paste.
  3. Once the egg yolks have almost cooked through, add them to the liver and chestnuts.
  4. Add some warm water to the mixture and blend together to form a smooth paste.
  5. Add the mixture to a pan and add the spices. Cook for 5-8 minutes or so, until the mixture is bubbling and hot throughout. Add more water if you think it’s getting too thick.
  6. Push the mixture through a sieve to get a thin consistency and serve.

Jollof Rice

October is Black History Month. For today’s recipe I wanted to learn about (and try to make) a dish I’ve never eaten before: Jollof Rice, a hugely popular and quintessentially West African food. I didn’t specifically set out to make Jollof rice when I began researching the history of West African food, but it was impossible to escape it – everywhere I turned, recipes for Jollof rice popped up, each proclaiming to be better than the last. It was too tempting to resist…

Firstly, let me start with a bit of a disclaimer by saying that I am not an expert in any way about the vast and various cuisines of West Africa. All I have done for this post is a bit of research, chatted to a few friends and colleagues who know how to cook Jollof Rice, and given it my best shot. If you want to find more African recipes or know more about the history of Jollof Rice (also here) then please do click on those links to see what people far more knowledgeable than me have to say.

I’ve written a bit about the cuisine of non-European food such as ancient Egypt and Persia, but it feels easier to write about this food when it’s framed in terms of ancient civilisations and the dishes either aren’t made anymore, or have changed significantly from the original.

This is one reason I tend to write mostly about the history of European food; it feels more familiar to me. Similarly, when I wrote about the history of my Indian grandad’s food it felt familiar because I was writing about my family first and foremost. It’s a totally daunting different feeling to be writing about the history of a food that is still loved by millions today. Jollof Rice is so treasured and fiercely defended that there are ongoing bitter online rivalries about which nation makes the best version. Seriously, the scrutiny on any recipe that claims to be for Jollof is fierce and the condemnation, if such a recipe is found lacking, is harsh.

Hence the disclaimer. I can’t pretend to fully understand the nuance and symbolism of Jollof Rice, I didn’t grow up eating it and I don’t have any stakes in the #jollofwars. Instead what I can do this Black History Month is to read, research and listen to others. I hope you’ll spend some time this October (and, to be honest, all year round!) doing the same.

What’s in a name?

When I naively typed ‘Jollof Rice recipe’ into Google I was immediately hit with over 3 million results. This was genuinely a bit terrifying to me; I enjoy variety up to a point, but after a quick look it seemed that each recipe on the first page was different from the last. The second page of hits yielded similarly overwhelming results too. People also had Strong Opinions on these recipes and the only thing I came away knowing for certain was that if I wanted authentic Jollof I should avoid Jamie Oliver’s recipe and Tesco’s ready-meal version at all possible costs.

At its most basic, Jollof Rice is a dish of rice that is cooked slowly in stock and a mixture of blended tomato, onion and pepper. Over time the rice absorbs the liquid and takes on a deep red hue. Many variations of Jollof Rice contain other things, such as peas, carrots, meat or fish – and it’s in these additions that disputes between what is ‘the best’ Jollof often focus their attention.

Sadly, there isn’t an original written Jollof recipe we can point to as the first version of this dish and as far as I could see there are literally hundreds of ways to prepare it. However, the consensus among many West Africans seems to be that Jollof Rice originated from the Wolof people, possibly some time during the Jolof (or Wolof) Empire – a collection of West African states including modern day Senegal and the Gambia, dating from 1350-1549.

Empires of West Africa. Credit here.

In Senegal today the Wolof people are the largest ethnic group, accounting for almost 40% of the country’s population and Wolof is the lingua franca of the country. The history of the Wolof people probably dates to around the 12th century when people migrated west following the collapse of the Empire of Ghana in c.1100, which was situated in present day Mali and Mauritania. In Wolof, Jollof Rice is called ‘benachin’, which translates as ‘one pot’ because everything is cooked in the same pot.

Yet despite the connection between names, Jollof Rice is the national dish of Nigeria, not Senegal. The national dish of Senegal is another rice dish, thiebou dieun. This dish contains more ingredients than the Jollof Rices of other countries and the main similarity seems to be that it is red and also contains rice and tomatoes.

So what are the ingredients of Jollof rice?

Well, rice. Duh. Also stock, onions, tomatoes and peppers. After that it gets…contentious.

Rice had been cultivated in Africa for around 3000 years and was an important part of West African cuisine long before the Jolof Empire existed. Judith A Carney writes that in the mid 15th century, an early Portuguese visitor described the cultivation of wetland rice on floodplains possibly near the Gambia: “They arrived sixty leagues beyond Cape Verde, where they met with a river which was of good width, and into it they entered with their caravels … they found much of the land sown, and many fields sown with rice…”

Onions were also a native crop, grown in North Africa from as far back as 5000 years ago. The ancient Egyptians held a special place for onions, with some arguing that the onions represented symbols of eternity because of the rings-within-rings. When Rameses IV died in c. 1160, onions were placed in his eye sockets. Don’t ask me why.

Detail from the tomb of Rameses IV. The hieroglyphs are actually a shopping list and read: “bread, cheese, onions and cat food.” Credit here.

However tomatoes and peppers, other key ingredients in Jollof Rice, weren’t introduced to Africa until the early 15th century when the Portuguese set up trading posts along the river Gambia. Therefore we can say with some confidence that if Jollof Rice (in its modern day form at least) was a creation of the Jolof Empire it wasn’t part of the cuisine until sometime around 1440, which is when Portuguese traders appear to have arrived in the Jolof Empire.

Initially the Portuguese trading posts were intended to develop trade links between Africa and Europe, though in reality they were more like garrisons and were designed to force West Africans to trade only with Portugal, rather than other European traders. In exchange for manufactured goods such as firearms and new foods, the Portuguese took items such as gold and terracotta. However, these actions later contributed to the beginnings of one of the most brutal and horrific atrocities in history: the transatlantic slave trade.

The legacy of the transatlantic slave trade

The transatlantic slave trade refers to the enslavement and transport of millions of Africans from their homeland to the Americas during the 16th to 19th centuries by European traders – notably the Portuguese, Dutch, English and French. To this day it is one of the worst periods of human history, involving suffering on an unimaginable and harrowing scale.

Map showing the Middle Passage and transatlantic slave trade. Credit here.

The effects of the slave trade echo through history into today’s societies and in his work How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, the late historian Walter Rodney argued there was a fundamental economic imbalance between some European and African countries as a result of Europe benefiting economically from enslaved human labour while Africa was bled of its citizens.

As well as people, Africa lost parts of its own food identity from the 16th to the 19th centuries as European colonisers took over land and systematically set about destroying the existing culture. According to the food historian Igor Cusack, it is near impossible to overestimate the colonial impact on African national cuisines. The West African dish groundnut stew, for example, came about partly because French colonisers destroyed many of the indigenous crops in Senegal and used almost all of the agricultural land there for groundnuts, which were then exported for profit. Likewise the use of broken rice in the aforementioned thiebou dieun is due to colonial rule where large quantities of poor quality rice were imported from French Indochina to Africa, with the best quality rice to going straight to France.

One more reason it’s challenging trying to gather early evidence of Jollof rice is because there aren’t many sources available. That’s not to say they don’t exist, just that either my research skills aren’t good enough, or that making pre-16th century African sources readily available to the general population of the UK hasn’t been prioritised by archives and libraries. Or it could be a combination of both (probably this one, to be honest.)

Much of West Africa’s history is also oral and told through stories and customs that are passed down through generations in the form of songs or folklore. Griots – akin to ancient Greek bards or epic poets – are one important way the history of West Africa was passed down.

A griot performing. Credit here.

Despite the issues I had with gathering reliable evidence about the history of pre-16th century African food, I did find this OpenEdition journals collection and this British Library article hugely helpful when researching the history of language, writing and food across the African continent.

Back to Jollof

What is clear is that in spite of the distorting influence of the slave trade and colonialism on the history of African food, Jollof Rice is a quintessentially West African dish. Its reach into numerous countries – both in Africa and across the world – under various names and versions, and the joy and love it generates by those who share its culture, is testament to that.

In lieu of a ‘first ever’ Jollof recipe, I settled for something arguably better: a Jollof recipe that had remained largely unchanged for a couple of generations, shared with me from an exceptionally generous colleague. Out of respect for him I am not publishing his family recipe, though I have included links to similar recipes that are already available online at the end of this post.

Full disclosure to anyone following the #jollofwars, though: it is a Nigerian version. This was actually perfect for me as my dad spent quite a bit of his childhood growing up in Lagos, so I felt like if I was going to make any type of Jollof recipe I’d have wanted to try a Nigerian one, just to see if it was similar to the ones he remembered.

Let’s make Jollof (finally.)

Cooking Jollof.

I actually made this Jollof twice because the first time I added an entire un-deseeded scotch bonnet to the tomato/pepper/onion purée and then spent the next 12 hours in the fetal position when I tried a teaspoon of it. I had though I wasn’t too bad with spice, but oh my god.

The second time I made it I avoided all the seeds in the scotch bonnet and added only the tiniest scraping of the flesh to the tomato mixture. This mixture was then added to a stock, which I made by hand following my colleague’s instructions, and then I added the rice.

Nigerian Jollof Rice is rinsed of all its starch, so I had to wash the rice I used multiple times until the water ran totally clear. Following the recipe, I then added the rice to the pot of stock and tomato purée and left it to cook, stirring it frequently to stop it sticking to the pan.

After a while it was done. The liquid had mostly been absorbed by the rice, which had turned a deep red colour. As per my colleague’s instructions, I served the Jollof alongside the chicken which had been used for the stock and which I had baked after removing it from the liquid.

Heaven on a plate.

This. Was. Incredible.

Spicy (but not too much this time) but surprisingly sweet, and with a deep savoury flavour in the background because of the stock used to cook the rice in. I think maaaaybe my Jollof was slightly wetter than it should have been (looking at other versions online they seem less sticky), but even if it was it didn’t seem to affect how good it tasted.

Before I made it I had tried to think of food I’d eaten before that might be similar, and had wondered if paella might fit the bill. After one bite I could see that though these two dishes shared common ingredients, they were clearly distinct from each other. Given that both West Africa and Spain have historical links to Portugal, it’s not surprising that comparisons are sometimes drawn between the two dishes, but the truth is there are clear differences. Paella has a more fishy and saffron-y flavour, whereas Jollof is peppery, more herby and meatier.

Ultimately I’d urge anyone who, like me, has never tried Jollof Rice before to give this a go. Set aside a few hours to really appreciate the process and you won’t be disappointed. Hold back on the scotch bonnet if you don’t enjoy breathing fire, though.

E x

Links

Jollof Rice/Thiebou Dieun Recipes:
Nigerian Jollof
Nigerian Jollof
Ghanaian Jollof
Ghanaian Jollof
Senegalese Thiebou Dieun