The Weight of Alexander the Great's Expansion on Today’s Culinary Culture: Part II
Updated: Jun 5, 2021
Perhaps no other event during Alexander's conquests affected modern cuisine more than the Macedonian conquests of Ancient Egypt
The evolution of customs, flavors and rituals linking food to the sacred and divine, underwent an enormous upheaval during and after the conquests of Alexander the Great. In this article we continue to retrace the march and the journey that brought the foundations of a new common cultural identity and, indeed, the birth of new flavors and gastronomic influences. The second stop of this cultural journey brings us to the most ancient and most deeply rooted civilization that Alexander encountered, the Egyptian culture. Despite having been annexed by the Persian Empire decades earlier, Egypt never completely absorbed the Achaemenid culture, keeping its own identity intact. In 332 BC Alexander, just twenty-four years old, and his army decided to slow their expansion into Asia and march to Memphis, the then-capital of Egyptian territory. Without any battles or negotiations, the young Macedonian king was immediately welcomed as a savior, the liberator from the long Persian oppression. The Egyptian culture and spirituality had a strong impact on Alexander, who tried to integrate himself into the customs and traditions of Egypt and not to subjugate the people of which he was the new king and pharaoh. In this period, we have a real transformation of the character, in fact, during his visit to the oracle of the god Ammon, Alexander is revealed his true identity: no longer Alexander son of Philip, but Alexander son of Ammon(Zeus). This fact profoundly changed the young king and his future ambitions. Although he remained there for only one year, the influence he had on the future history of Egypt was very powerful,so as to be remembered even today as one of the most important pharaohs. However, the aspect we are going to analyze and discuss is the one of gastronomic culture and of everything that revolves around the table. Egyptian culinary culture had already come in touch with the Hellenic world through maritime exchanges, however,with the arrival of the Macedonian empire the collision between the two worlds created a revolution, laying the foundations of some of the alimentary habits and customs which are still current. Unlike the Persian world, in terms of cuisine and the act of eating, the land of pharaohs shared a lot with Greece: food was purely a means of sustenance, and the meter and the measure were the basis of nutrition. Even royal banquets, despite the luxury and superb quality of the ingredients, were moderated, both in quantity and in the way people sat around the table. So what were the innovations brought by two countries which were so similar?
There are many examples of how the union between the two cultures influenced the contemporary table, as the exchange of ideas between the Egyptians and Hellenic Greeks became more commonplace.
The culture of beer both in the Egyptian territory and in the rest of the Persian empire is well known to historians, however in the Greek world, despite it being consumed, it never had a leading role on tables: it was always considered as a "barbaric" beverage. The dramatist Aeschylus pronounced the following sentence when talking about Egyptians: "they are not real men, but men who drink barley wine". However, with the arrival of Alexander in Egypt the consumption of beer by Greek people increased greatly; but even more important was the Greek expansionism, which promoted a global market, even more than before. Moreover, new methods of flavoring beer were invented. Why? Because the scarce Greek knowledge about the production of the famous blonde drink brought to the ears of Egyptians new ideas and new aromas to be discovered: for example, the addition of cheese during fermentation, not necessary and never used by Egyptians until then. Another very important food that is consumed today, but probably its real origin is not known by many, is botargo (a type of salted and cured fish), obtained by salting and drying the eggs of mullet, fish of which the Nile was very rich. Alexander's army was amazed by the knowledge of the Egyptians about the preservation of these eggs and above all by their taste, so much so as to make a good stock of them, being a perfect food for the long journey to Asia. Lettuce, which for Greeks and Romans was a food of little importance and a supposed passion-killer, in the Egyptian world was considered as an aphrodisiac food and it was mainly eaten raw and lightly seasoned. Therefore, the Greek food habit of eating raw and cooked vegetables with the addition of aromas and cheese, together with the large-scale use of lettuce in Egypt, could have brought to light the ancestor of a kind of food we all consume today, salads. Talking about the arrival of new vegetables after the conquest of Egypt by the Macedonians, we should probably give credit for the birth of tzatziki, the famous Hellenic sauce, to this cultural collision between Greece and Egypt. As a matter of fact, a sauce with yogurt and garlic was already consumed by Greeks before Alexander, but considering the huge consumption and importance of cucumber in the Egyptian diet, the sauce now famous all over the world, could have been born right there. The most extraordinary food found by Alexander in Egypt, was what we know today as foie gras, or the fatty liver of breeding ducks. The ancestor of traditional French cuisine has its origins on the banks of the Nile, where the breeding of birds was the basis of the Egyptians' diet and especially of the pharaonic banquets. So how did a food so rooted in Egyptian culture arrive in Europe, especially without a conquest campaign by the army of Egypt? Thanks to the import of these recipes by Macedonians, later taken by Romans. In fact,the custom of feeding ducks and geese with dried figs in order to enlarge their liver, was later attributed to Roman gastronome Marco Gavio Apicio.
Last but not least, we must give honor to the greatest cultural revolution of the encounter between the two worlds: Alexander, captivated by these lands until then considered barbarian, wanted at all costs to build on the Egyptian coast the city that most of all represents the Macedonian splendor: Alexandria.
It was founded by Alexander himself in 331 B.C. with the help of the architect Dinocrates of Rhodes.
It was a modern city and incredibly advanced for its time.
The first city founded with the aim of unifying all the cultures known and conquered by the Greeks: although the capital of the empire was Babylon, Alexander recognized in Alexandria the true fulcrum of the spirit of union and glory that he wanted to pass on.
It was there that the greatest repository of knowledge in the ancient world was born, the famous Library of Alexandria, a place which not only housed the largest collection of manuscripts of every category,but was also born as a center for scientific research, and included also the first ever museum of human history.
But how does this relate to gastronomy?
Although the material in the ancient library was burned and lost, it was there that the concept of gastronomic archives was born.
It is certain that even before the birth of Alexandria, there is testimony of books about gastronomy, but such a collection and a gathering of manuscripts from various cultures is the basis of culinary knowledge passed down in a technical and careful manner.
Alexander, after the encounter with the Egyptian world, was never the same, increasing his spirituality and placing his personal growth at a much more esoteric level, but it is probably also thanks to his new consciousness and beliefs that he met an absolutely legendary, but inevitably destructive, destiny.
The union between these two great civilizations under the same empire, changed the history and culture of the world in every aspect, laying a solid foundation for a common Mediterranean identity.