On the tomb of Ramses III (Tomb KV11), located in the Valley of the Kings, Egypt, in chamber Ba, there is a depiction of a baking scene. The drawings show Egyptians, pressing grapes with their feet, and then taking the pressed grape juice into a bakery, where dough is formed into various shapes. The shape that is featured most prominently is a spiral bread. The drawings continue to show that once the dough was formed it was placed into a large pot of boiling liquid using two long sticks. After that the boiled bread was taken out and placed into a vertical oven (known in Arabic today as Tanoor) where it was baked. Afterwards, many of these breads were placed on trays and carried away from the bakery. We do not know the Egyptian name for this bread, or if the bread was a mundane bread used for regular consumption, or was a sacred bread used in some kind of religious ritual.
Unfortunately, the sarcophagus chamber of the tomb has been flooded multiple times during the years of 1890-1910, and the drawings on the walls have been heavily damaged, while the chamber itself was filled with debris. However, the drawings have been preserved in two 19th century books. The first book was published by an Italian egyptologist, Ippolito Rosellini, in 1834, while the second was published by the famous British explorer John Gardner Wilkinson in 1878, redrawing Rosellini’s drawings.
Baking Scene in the tomb of Ramses III, KV11. From Wilkinson, John Gardner. The Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians. Vol. 2. London, 1878, p. 34.
Plate LXXXV, Baking Bread from Tomb of Ramses III, Tomb KV11. From Ippolito Rosellini, I monumenti dell’Egitto e della Nubia, Plates, Civil Monuments, Part 2, 1834.
Since the majority of the original drawings have been destroyed by floods there is a current attempt to reconstruct them, by a German team of archaeologists, known as the Ramses III Project.
Reconstruction of the bakery scene in chamber Ba, Tomb of Ramses III, KV11 by A. Weber.
Since the drawings on the Ramses III tomb did not come with any accompanying writing that may suggest what the bread recipe was like, I had to find an ancient recipe, similar to the one depicted on the tomb. The recipe resembles the modern recipe of making bagels where the dough is boiled prior to it being baked. In the Middle East today there is a common bread sold on open markets in many different countries called Kaak (كعك). It is usually shaped into a circle shape similar to a bagel, but made much larger. However, the modern versions of Kaak are baked straight, without boiling. However, that was not always the case. A 13th century Syrian cookbook from Aleppo, Al Wusla ila l-Habeeb, records 3 recipes for Kaak, one of which is first boiled, and then baked, just like the bread depicted on Ramses III tomb.
The recipe reads as follows:
Arabic text of the Al Wusla ila l-Habeeb boiled Kaak recipe from Perry, Charles. Scents and Flavors: A Syrian Cookbook. NYU Press, 2017, p. 188, recipe 7.98.
Second variety [of ka’k], called mufakhkhar, which is delicate and crisp and melts in the mouth Knead dough with the spices given above and leave to rise fully, then make rings as described. Fill a pan with water, and bring to a full boil. Put the rings on a dowel, stick them in the water, remove, and put on a tray. Do the same with all the dough, then bake in the oven. The result is a delicious and unusual version.
English translation from Perry, Charles. Scents and Flavors: A Syrian Cookbook. NYU Press, 2017, p. 189, recipe 7.98.
Note that not all of the loaves depicted on the Ramses III tomb are spiral. Many of them are circular, just like Kaak. My guess is that medieval Kaak evolved from this ancient Egyptian bread.
The Egyptians would have used sour grape juice, although wine would work as well, to make the bread rise, because sour grape juice acts as a leavening agent. There is also a recipe in the anonymous work Geoponica (Book 2, Chapter 33) written in the 10th century CE in Constantinople for the Byzantine emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, that suggests to use sour grape juice, squeezed from grapes soaked in water over night, instead of yeast to make the bread rise. Since Geoponika collected material from the thousand years prior to its writing, it is possible that the recipe is much older than the book itself, possibly being from the Roman Empire, which would have included Egypt and other parts of the Middle East.
The recipe reads as follows:
Others indeed make bread without leaven thus: they put some grapes in water the day before the baking, the day following they take the wet grapes, and press them, and they use the flowing liquor instead of leaven, and they make the bread sweeter and finer.
To make a reaction with the sour grape juice a sweetening agent is needed to produce the sugar. As has been pointed out by Delwen Samuel, a leading expert on ancient Egyptian bread, Egyptians used both date syrup and barley malt as the sweetening agent in their bread. The main grain that they used for bread was Emmer wheat and both two row and six row barley.
In my recreation of this recipe I have used, whole grain Emmer wheat, date syrup, and Verjus, a type of a sour grape juice. The recipe followed the steps depicted on the tomb.
- Wilkinson, John Gardner. The Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians. Vol. 2. London, 1878.
- Ippolito Rosellini, I monumenti dell’Egitto e della Nubia, Plates, Civil Monuments, Part 2, 1834.
- Perry, Charles. Scents and Flavors: A Syrian Cookbook. NYU Press, 2017.
- Samuel, Delwen. “Archaeology of ancient Egyptian beer.” Journal of the American Society of Brewing Chemists 54, no. 1 (1996): 3-12.
- Owen, Thomas, Geoponika, Agricultural Persuits. Volume 1. London, 1805.
Ancient Egyptian Bread of Ramses III - Kaak, كعك
- 3 1/4 cups Emmer Wheat Flour
- 1 1/4 cups Verjus (Sour Grape Juice) Warm
- 3 tbsp Date Syrup
- Add all of the ingredients into a large bowl and knead into dough. Make sure that the Verjus is warm. If it is cold, warm it up. The dough would not rise properly if the Verjus is cold. The dough should remain slightly wet. If the dough is too dry add a little bit more water. If the dough is too wet add a little bit more flour. Form the dough into a ball.
- Once the dough has been made, put it into a clean bowl and let it rise for one hour in a warm place. Cover the bowl with a wet towel so that it does not dry out. After 1 hour the dough should increase in size by 1.5-2 times the original amount. Cracks should be visible in the dough ball.
- Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.
- About 10 minutes before the dough is done rising, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Once the water is boiling add 2 tbsp of date syrup to it an mix it up well. The date syrup adds flavor to the bread crust while the dough is boiled in the water.
- Cut the risen dough into 6 even pieces and form each piece into a small ball. Alternatively, you can cut into larger balls and make less loaves that are larger in size.
- Take each ball of dough and roll it out with your hands into a thin sausage shaped tube.
- Begin to roll the tube into a spiral shape.
- Tuck the end of the spiral tube underneath the formed bread and pinch the end so it does not unravel. Shape all of the dough balls into spirals.
- Place each of the formed spiral breads into the boiling water. Keep gently kicking it around the pot with a wooden stick or a slotted spoon, so that it does not stick to the bottom or to the walls of the pot. Keep boiling for 2 minutes. The spiral dough will sink at first and then should float after about 15 seconds. It is possible that it will not float if the dough is very dense and heave, and that is ok. After 2 minutes take each spiral dough out of the boiling water using the spoon or sticks and place on top of the baking sheet covered in wax paper. You can boil multiple breads simultaneously as long as they fit into the pot.
- While the spiral dough is still wet, place the baking sheet into the oven and bake at 450 degrees F for 16 minutes. Once baked, take the bread out of the oven, remove from the wax paper (it should not stick), and place onto a cooling rack. Let the bread cool and rest for about 15 minutes.
- Serve the bread while it is still warm.