We had barely been there a minute and our phones were already on permanent vibrate with people responding to the Insta stories we’d already posted of the Syrian and Iraqi dishes we were about to stuff our faces with.
On my side, the messages were all love hearts and excitement from friends reminiscing about our time in the Middle East as students. On my Habeebtee aka. Yasmin’s side, they were messages of amazement from her multicultural Viennese friends that she’d managed to find such a place.
What place? Well, it’s not really one place, but a couple of stands at the Brunnenmarkt where we discovered some Syrian and Iraqi street food that had us feeling like we were in a Middle Eastern market.
The photos these friends were responding to were of manakeesh, (manoushah singular, manaqish, depending on where you are from), a Levantine flatbread, topped with various things. Traditionally seen as a breakfast snack, or a quick bite on the go, the numbers that the customers before us are ordering suggests that they are working their way through the menu and making a meal of it.
We’re tempted to do the same – there is enough choice. Most come with the option to add cheese on top, which is always a win. Yasmin knows exactly what she wants and asks for it in Arabic – Zat’aar wa gibne (Zat’aar with cheese). Zat’aar is by far the most traditional of these snacks; a delicate mix of thyme, sesame seeds, lemon juice, oil and a dash of saffron.
The guy behind the stand, Ziad, is immediately curious about Yasmin’s dialect, and throws a stream of questions her way while kneading the dough into enough little circles to fulfil his mountain of orders. His hands move quickly, skilfully, artfully, working through the process with barely a glance and with an entertaining dash of flare, akin to that of a confident cocktail bartender.
A few flicks and spins of the manakeesh and the wooden paddle he uses to get them in and out of the oven – soon enough he has them hot in our hands.
After leaving Ziad to do his thing, we realise there is much more on offer here. We had come for the manakeesh, but in the stand directly opposite Schamiat (Ziad’s stand) two other guys are working away at something equally as tasty looking.
Appetites wetted, we go over to them and their tandoor bread oven. They explain to us that they make up to 2000 flat breads a day and laugh when we express amazement – ‘I used to make 8000 back in Iraq.’
While we’re there, people come and go, taking armfuls with them, except one guy who collects two and goes over to the stand next to Ziad’s. Curious, we follow, and find at the other end of the tandoor stand the tastiest looking Kebab meat we’ve ever seen – not your normal processed and artificial-looking column of meat, but proper hunks of meat.
Behind the stand is a vertical grill, with notches on it to cook proper shish kebab. I thought it was a butcher selling raw meat, but it was actually row upon row of freshly prepped, and ready to grill shish kebab. I have to have it. As my chicken shish kebab is put on the grill, the guy gets out a hair dryer to give it the ‘treatment.’
He starts preparing the bread and I opt for his standard one, knowing that I would get to sample some of the tandoor bread from the falafel wrap Yasmin’s ordered (the advantage of dating a small person).
We settle down on one of the two tables next to the stands, coincidentally next to the guy I had followed.
Beaming with joy as we ate, enjoying the freshness of the herbs, sauces, salads and fillings packed in our wraps, I look over at the guy. Like a pro, he tears off a hunk of bread with one hand, dips and scoops stuff on to it, all with the same hand – proper Bedoiun-style.
I smile remembering my attempts to learn the technique in Wadi Rum and the markets of Amman. I start reflecting that no matter where we are from as expats, we always look for that taste of home, be it in an Irish Pub, a Balkan grill house, or an American diner-type joint. Or a random stand in the middle of Vienna’s Brunnenmarkt. This corner of the market is a slice of Arabia, which could easily whisk your imagination away back to any traditional souq – the smells, sounds, the general bustle, and Ziad’s playlist singing out habibi constantly from his stand.
This special Middle Eastern culinary experience of delicious Syrian and Iraqi street food transformed Brunnenmarkt for us into a souq far, far away.