My glorious Citizens! You may not be aware that the Hetman of History, the Pharaoh of Flambé – YOUR TFD! – was actually an ancient history major in college, and my honors thesis (painstakingly written using an electric typewriter in 1988 on onion-skin typing paper) reflected my great and passionate interest in Egyptian history (read it here if you are curious)!
I was actually privileged to excavate at an archaeological site near Beni Hasan during college and while my honors thesis covered late Egyptian history when it became a Christian stronghold, I am particularly fascinated by the history millennia before this period. It is in fact from that hoary and distant period of antiquity that today’s recipe springs!
This is assuredly one of the oldest dessert recipe that has come down to us and is known as ‘Wah Shat’ – since hieroglyphs do not display properly in most browsers when used as a font, here are the proper glyphs for Wah Shat as an image:
As noted in this excerpted text from the exceptional website ancientrecipes.org:
In the Longitudinal Hall, in the Tomb of Rekhmire, in Thebes, Egypt, there is a drawing which depicts a recipe of a sacrificial cone cake made from Tiger Nuts. There are various opinions of what Tiger Nuts are called in Ancient Egyptian. There is a debate of how to read the hieroglyphic for it on Rekhmire’s tomb as well. It has been read as Wah, or sometimes, Menweh, Gyu, Senwet, Shenyta, and other variations. The word used for sacrificial cake on Rekhmire’s tomb is Shat.
Tiger Nuts are not actually nuts. They are root tubers of the plant Cyperus Esculentus. The plant looks like regular blade grass above ground, but below ground, the tubers, when fully grown, are attached to its roots. Once collected and removed from the roots they are dried and can be eaten raw or can be ground into flour. When I tasted them, their taste resembles pistachios, but with a much gummier texture, and takes a little while to chew them through. They were used as the chewing gum of Ancient Egypt, where they have been cultivated from the Predynastic period.
Rekhmire was an ancient Egyptian noble and official who served as Vizier and Governor of the City of Thebes, during the reigns of Thutmosis III and Amenhotep II, the sixth and seventh Pharaohs, respectively, of the 18th dynasty, in the 2nd millennium BCE. (TFD NOTE: I calculate that makes this recipe, translated from a painting in his tomb, to be about 3,500 years old!)
The painting shows Rekhmire being served by various workers who are preparing sacrifices on his behalf. One of the sacrifices is a cone shaped cake made from Tiger Nuts, piles of which are being brought in the Temple of Amun. Spread out among the drawings, are faint short inscriptions in hieroglyphics that describe the process.
The painting shows workers stock piling Tiger Nuts into large piles. After that the Tiger Nuts are pounded into a coarse flour, sifted, and mixed with a liquid or fat of some sort, which most probably is honey. The reason it is most probably honey, is because on the left side of the painting workers are shown removing honey combs. Besides honey, oil was probably used as well as the binding fat to hold up the shape of the cake. The cakes are then shaped into long cones, and stacked in baskets, which are in turn brought as sacrifices to the god Amun on Rekhmire’s behalf.
Now, Tiger Nuts were valuable and loved enough to be entombed and discovered with buried Egyptians as far back as the 4th millennium BCE, though to most of the world and its history the plant is considered one of the most heinous weeds around – it’s not really a surprise this recipe eventually became lost to history.
As noted on atlasobscura.com:
Historians agree that tiger nuts (hab al-‘aziz), edible tubers found at the end of the Cyperus grass, were the primary ingredient in what could be considered the oldest-known Egyptian recipe, which dates from the 15th-century BC. A tomb painting interred with the vizier Rekhmire details how to make cone-shaped loaves of ground tiger nuts and honey. The scene depicts figures grinding tiger nuts with long pestles, and shaping the tuber-honey mixture with both hands into tall and pointy cones.
These images of tiger nut cones were meant to please the sun god Amun on Rekhmire’s behalf. But tiger nuts were not just used for special occasions. Egyptians also added tiger nuts to medicine and perfume, and ate them prepared in several ways. Some devoured tiger nuts raw, but others preferred it flavored, boiled in beer, or roasted atop a fire.
Now, as to the proportions and actual ingredients – that is a LOT more tricky. The tomb paintings show the basic ingredients and how they were put together and shaped, but not necessarily ALL of the ingredients or any idea as to their proportions. This is where the gastronome must take precedence over the archaeologist, but regardless, know that my twin obsessions burn like two supernovae in the eyes of Horus himself!
There are very few recipes for Wah Shat on the Web – and yet, some use dates while others don’t. I prefer to use them, but in my unending quest for ruthless authenticity in my recipes, I wanted to use a date as close as possible to the ones used in ancient Egypt. Only one tiny problem – until a few years ago, the closest version to the extinct Egyptian date was ALSO extinct!
A few seeds of the famed Judean date palm were discovered at an Israeli archeological dig and miraculously, one of the 2,000 year old seeds germinated after being planted! It is now a healthy young palm, but fruit from this precious tree is still not available to taste. However after reading this fascinating interview with the ethnobotanists who grew the palm and DID taste the dates from it, they are apparently most similar in flavor to the Iraqi varietal known as Zahidi. Thankfully, these may be easily purchased online here.
Tiger nuts have become quite popular as a paleo food and it has become easy to find them – you can buy excellent organic ones from Amazon here. As to the honey – once more, my obdurate stubbornness re-asserted itself – I refuse to use ANYTHING but the most apropos ancient version for bringing this most ancient sweet treat back to life!
As such, there are only two possible choices. The most appropriate is sadly VERY expensive, as it is only found in a few areas of the Middle East today and since it was reputed to be the favored honey of the Prophet (PBUH), it is VERY much in demand.
I speak of nothing less than Sidr honey, which is still gathered from wild bee hives in Yemen to this very day – you can purchase a jar of this unique and extremely rare/delicious honey from here. A far cheaper but still very appropriate honey with the right ancient pedigree is acacia honey, which you can inexpensively purchase from Amazon here.
Still, one last piece of the puzzle eluded me – between the honey and the dates, this is REALLY sweet, and I can’t imagine the ancient Egyptians wouldn’t have used one of the many spices they had access to in the recipe. Hell, they spiced up MUMMIES with cloves and cinnamon as part of the preservation ritual – I’d like to think they cooked with some of these spices as well…but WHICH ONES TO USE?!
This is where the antipodes of my all-encompassing genius really came into their own – I know from my own historical studies that anise was definitely known in the 18th Dynasty, as confirmed in the scholarly text of this nutritional geography article from UC Davis. So – one down, at least from a hypothesis standpoint. Next, unless you are in the parfumerie industry, you might not know that Egypt is today the primary source of violet blossoms for perfume and this is in fact a continuation of the ancient practice of growing them for the same reasons!
So – what else could I use for flavoring my recreation of this ancient sweet except these violet-flavored artisinal candies with a whole aniseed in the center?! It makes the recipe truly special and closes the circle from ancient to modern and back to antiquity again. My mental processes may coil back upon themselves more than the feared Apep serpent, but never fear – there is genuine scholarship behind my recreation of this ancient treat!
Of course, the oil you use MUST be from Israel, as it is recorded that the Egyptians imported their olive oil from Canaan (now the Holy Land) during the 18th Dynasty – and who knows, perhaps the Hebrew slaves in Egypt dined on this very dish! This is my preferred supplier.
My Citizens, this dish is simplicity itself and will give you an authentic taste enjoyed more than 3,000 years ago in one of the earliest cradles of human civilization! Please do consider enjoying this as part of a full-on meal from antiquity, including Roman cheese and garlic spread as an appetizer and the oldest recipe in the world from Sumeria as a main course! I have every faith that your palates and intellects – like mine – are forever questing for new frontiers, and sometimes the newest are in fact the most ancient! 🙂
Battle on – the Generalissimo
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