Vienna’s falafel scene is one of the most underrated underground charms of the city. As a disclaimer, I have not yet tasted falafel in its Middle Eastern counties of origin, nor has this tasty dish been a craved comfort food until recent weeks. I cannot claim to be an expert on this savory treat, but I do know good food when I taste it.
During my first few months in Vienna, I walked by the many train station falafel shops countless times before thinking twice to step inside. I had, however, sought out falafels at vegan and vegetarian-branded restaurants in Vienna, where I was sorely disappointed with the high price and dry, tasteless quality. I doused these falafels in additional red chili flakes and tabasco sauce in a desperate attempt to deliver flavor to the investment of my precious Euros. However, my fiery work was a fruitless cause. It wasn’t until several months after my arrival that I found where fantastic falafels happily hid.
One bitterly cold December day, after having just missed the hourly train back to my Austrian village, I sat on the ground of a cool corner in the open-aired station. I took my laptop out and began to type with numbed fingers, angry at their inability to move in the frigid breeze. As I neared my freezing point, a man popped his head out his neon-lit falafel shop, inviting me to take a seat. For a few fleeting moments before fleeing for the next train, I was overcome by the welcome warmth that radiated from the gyro machine, which seemed to lovingly surround my chilled body with the same comfort of curling into the security of my thick covers after a long day. The steamy scent of fresh-baked falafels lingered on my coat as I rode my train into the night.
Images of falafels danced in my head in the nights to come. Thus, the next day that I was stuck in the station, I made a beeline for the falafel shop. I took one bite into my hot, hummus-dressed falafel pita sandwich and felt the rays of heaven arrive to the earth. I munched happily, savoring my new bliss, and laughing to myself at the divine comfort of my new home away from home. I had been warned by a professor to stay away from migrant-run restaurants in Vienna, stating that it’s “not safe” for women in these facilities. But there I was, exchanging broken German over grins with my falafel man from Azerbaijan. I was a rebel without a cause, subtly nodding my head between bites to the old school rap and Arabic club music that blasted through the stereo.
In the midst of my contented chomping, I halted mid-bite nearly choking in muffled laughter as I listened to the exchange of the falafel teller with two elderly Austrian women who strolled in distractedly in the midst of conversation to request two cappuccinos. The falafel teller chuckled along with me, replying, “Kein Kaffee (no coffee). Jagermeister? Vodka?” Startled, the two grannies giggled like little girls who had heard their first sex joke before dashing away.
Turning back to my sandwich, I savored my last few bites, realizing that this falafel shop had fully won my heart. With a broad smile and a “danke schön” (thank you), I left uplifted, knowing full well that I’d be a regular in this sunny space.
Since proudly becoming one of the teller’s customers with perfect attendance, I have tried my own hand at cooking falafels. I wouldn’t dare attempt to replicate the sanctity of the original falafel that only my local teller can serve with my seal of approval. Instead, I’ve sought out unique vegan falafel creations. My favorite of these is the recipe that follows for Sunny Sweet Potato Falafels. Try your hand at these vibrant, golden plant-based beauties and indulge in the happiness that this guilt-free indulgence has to bring.
The recipe (makes 12 small falafel balls)
1 small sweet potato
1 can chickpeas
2 tablespoon goji berries
¼ teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon ground turmeric powder
¾ teaspoon red chili flakes (optional; more or less to taste)
¼ clove garlic, minced
2 tablespoons flaxseed
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons vegan tomato sauce
Slice the sweet potato in two, longways, and bake the sweet potato on a non-stick baking sheet in the oven at 400°F for 30 minutes or until it becomes tender.
While the sweet potato is baking, blend the chickpeas and goji berries with a food processor until they become a smooth, blended consistency. Place the mixture into a large mixing bowl.
When the sweet potato is done baking, scoop out the starchy inside and compost the skin. Puree the sweet potato in the food processor.
Add the sweet potato, sea salt, turmeric, red chili flakes, minced garlic, flaxseed, olive oil, and tomato sauce to the mixing bowl with the chickpea blend. Mash the mixture with a spatula until the mixture becomes evenly blended.
Use clean hands to roll the falafel mixture into small (about 2x2 inch), round balls. Place the falafel balls onto a non-stick baking sheet. Bake at 350°F for 15 minutes. Take the falafels out of the oven to flip them to their opposite surface, and continue baking for an additional 15 minutes or until the exterior begins to darken.
Falafels are best enjoyed with fresh pita bread, hummus, crisp vegetables, drizzling of extra virgin olive oil, and (most importantly) a warm smile to share with new friends.
Note: This recipe was adapted from Nest & Glow’s Sweet Potato Falafel with Lemon Dressing Recipe.