Biblical portions

By Alex Kasriel, May 23, 2008

Ever wondered what our ancestors ate in ancient times?

This week, Giles Coren and Sue Perkins spent a week eating only wartime food in a new series of The Supersizers Go… on BBC2. They will also be sampling a Restoration, Regency, Victorian and a 1970s diet during this series. The pair say they were unimpressed by most of the food they were served during this series; but how would they have got on eating the food of our ancestors, by going on a biblical diet?

If you associate Bible times with sumptuous banqueting tables groaning with lamb, goat and vast bunches of grapes, then think again. According to one expert, the Israelites mostly survived on cereals, legumes and dairy.

In his forthcoming book, What Did The Ancient Israelites Eat? Diet In Biblical Times, Nathan MacDonald describes a poor and not very healthy diet.

“The diet of the ancient Israelites would have been far narrower than our own,” says the lecturer in Old Testament at St Andrew’s University. “The main item on the menu would have been cereals, either as bread or porridge. Estimates are that breads contributed between 50 to 75 per cent of overall calories: far in excess of modern diets. The Israelites would probably have consumed legumes, olive oil, maybe some figs, and dairy products — not fresh, but as ghee (clarified butter) or cheese. Other fruits may have been eaten in season. Vegetables may have been eaten, but they were not thought of very highly. This lack of variety led to ill health, especially for women during pregnancy as they suffered from a lack of iron.  

“There is possible evidence of iron-deficiency anemia. The reasons for this are probably that flat bread is high in phytates and these inhibit iron absorption. The dietary means of increasing iron were either not well thought of (vegetables) or rarely eaten (meat).

Diet was related to class and gender, so only rich males would have feasted on meat in the form of stews and then only on special occasions. Instead, animals were used for trade and for their ancillary products.

“Meat was almost certainly the dietary item that indicated a shift from everyday meals to a feast,” says Dr MacDonald. “For one thing, meat was incredibly valuable. At the time of the Persian Empire, a sheep was equivalent to three months’ wheat. When meat was eaten, it was probably as a stew. There are even some ancient recipes from ancient Babylonia for various royal stews (c. 1700 BCE).

“One of the interesting finds in the last 30 years of archaeological work is the amount of fish discovered in ancient Israelite sites. Fish used to be thought of as something the Israelites would rarely have eaten. Israel never controlled the coast and there are few natural harbours. But recent evidence is that fish was traded from as far away as the Nile or the Red Sea, although it can’t have come cheap” — or particularly fresh, for that matter.

Dr MacDonald says Abraham would have got more dairy in his diet than his descendants, as he is presented in Genesis as a semi-nomadic pastoralist. And he explains that while women baked bread (in cone-shaped ovens) and cooked porridge over pottery vessels over fire, it was probably the men who cooked the meat — the barbecue was obviously always a male preserve.

There were no ready meals in those days. Indeed, for the women, preparing a meal was hard labour. Magen Broshi of the Israel Museum has estimated that a wife with a family of five or six would have needed to spend three hours a day in the laborious work of milling flour. Fast food it was not.

Stew and soups like this one made from lentils and other legumes were a staple of the Israelite diet

Jacob’s pottage of lentils and barley

This pottage of lentils, barley, mustard greens, and mint from A Biblical Feast: Ancient Flavours for the Contemporary Mediterranean Table by Kitty Morse ( may have been similar to the one Jacob served to Esau.

Serves 4 to 6


2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
4 garlic cloves
2 tablespoons pearl barley
¾ cup brown lentils,
rinsed, drained, and
cleaned of impurities
2 sprigs lovage or celery
with leaves, chopped
1 medium leek, white stem only, finely diced
6 cups lamb or beef stock
1 bunch mustard leaves, rinsed under running water, drained, and cut into thin ribbons
10 fresh mint leaves,
finely chopped
Salt to taste


In a large soup pot over medium-high heat, heat the olive oil. Cook the onion, stirring occasionally until golden brown, 6 to 8 minutes. l Add the garlic, barley, and lentils. Cook, stirring, until the barley turns golden, 2 to 3 minutes. Add lovage, leeks, and stock or broth. Cover and cook, until barley is tender, 30 to 35 minutes. Add the mustard leaves, and cook until wilted, 2 to 3 minutes.

Add mint and season well.

Last updated: 9:28am, May 28 2008