Roy Ner jokes that about 40 kilos of his body weight is probably made up of laffa, he’s eaten so much of it.
The Israeli-born chef is talking about a big, round Israeli-Iraqi flatbread that’s traditionally cooked in a taboon, a beehive-like oven, where the dough rounds are slapped onto the inside wall of the oven to cook. The resulting crisp but soft and tear-able bread might just be the ultimate partner for hummus.
The bread – laffa, laffah or lafa, depending on who you talk to - is also called Iraqi pita.
“It’s like a pizza dough - a long, slow fermentation,” explains New South Wales-based Ner, the executive chef of Brisbane’s Za Za Ta restaurant (currently closed due to coronavirus restrictions, but re-opening soon). “Then they flatten the dough, and then open in the hands, left and right, and then onto a pillow. You need a pillow because you can’t touch this [oven], it’s too hot.”
Ner is talking about the way the thin discs of dough are shaped by hand, then placed on a round pillow to be slapped onto the side of the taboon oven, which is very similar to an Indian tandoor.
The bread cooks on one side from contact with the hot oven, and on the other from the radiant heat; this, says Ner, gives the bread its elasticity.
In Israel, the breads can be big – 30cm or more across, Ner says. “It’s everywhere back home,” he says, often served up as part of a mezze spread (“you have the bread in the middle and plenty of things to dip into”) or with shawarma. “The most favoured way of eating shawarma is with laffa, because the thickness and everything, it’s the perfect vessel.”
In Melbourne, Ad Daboush and his team at Tavlin serve up around 200 laffa a week.
“Laffa is a really fluffy, fresh and delicious flatbread. It has the texture more of a pillowy pita, I would say most similar would be fresh afghan or naan. What's great about traditional Israeli laffa bread is that it is dairy-free and vegan,” says Daboush,
“Laffa like any bread can come in different forms. I love a fluffier style laffa, but some can be thinner. Laffa should be slightly thicker and fluffier than other flatbread,” he says.
At the Enmore, Erskineville and Surry Hills outlets of Shenkin in Sydney, laffa is used for their popular wraps.
“We didn’t want to do a basic wrap like you could buy anywhere and warm it up,” says Yaar Haikin, part of the family behind the five Shenkin outlets. “It’s very popular in Israel but still not many people are making it here,” he says. “It’s soft and big and super-popular – people come from all over Sydney to get those laffa wraps.”
Shenkin’s laffa is soft and thin; although it’s usually only used for the wraps, we asked if we could order a laffa as an extra on the side of our shared platters last time we visited, and can confirm that yes, their fresh-from-the-pan, still-warm laffa is mighty fine for tearing and using to scoop up hummus.
“It's this weird sort of impossible - really, really soft but really crisp, you know?” says Michael Solomonov, explaining his version of the bread when he welcomes Action Bronson to his multi-award-winning Philadelphia restaurant Zahav in an episode of F*ck That’s Delicious (you can see it on SBS VICELAND 11.35pm Tuesday 30 July, and then on SBS On Demand).
Solomonov, who was born in Israel, uses a wood-fired oven to make these big soft discs of bread. “The thing about laffa is you want it to be crispy but also sort of soft, so you can rip it apart and bend it to scoop up hummus or whatever it is you are eating with it… you want it to be really pliable, but also have a little bit of crunch,” he says in this video below, where he shows how he makes laffa and hummus. Flipping it from hand not only knocks off excess flour but “creates little dips in the dough so you get a contrast in texture when you eat it”, he explains.
Fans of Tavlin’s Middle Eastern fare – Daboush is Israeli, and his grandparents were from Syria and Libya, so a lot of his food is inspired by flavours from those countries, too – rave about the hummus here. So is laffa the perfect bread for hummus, we ask?
“Well, everything tastes good with hummus. Nothing quite like dipping either fresh pita bread or fresh laffa from the oven into hummus, especially our hummus. We prepare over 200 kg of it a week!” Daboush says.
Daboush used to use a traditional oven, but to meet demand, now uses a specially imported turning oven. “In my sit-down restaurant, before I opened the street food version I have now, I used to use a tandoor oven - commonly used by Indian restaurants to make naan/roti. Then I bought from Israel a turntable oven to make the bread. As I had more demand for my bread at the time, I needed to invest in a machine which could produce more at a time,” he explains.
When we chat to Ner, he’s been busy thinking about and cooking breads he’ll be serving in the restaurant he’ll be opening next year (location and name yet to be revealed) and laffa will have a starring role on the menu.
“I miss that bread so much!” he says – which is why he’s installing a traditional taboon-style oven in the restaurant. “I don’t want to serve something if I can’t make it the proper way.”
Around the world, laffa is also known as Iraqi bread or Iraqi pita. “The origin of laffa [in Israel] is from Iraq – it came with the Iraqi Jews,” Ner explains. Today, it’s a street food classic in Israel.
“Shawarma with laffa, and falafel in pita … in bread, those are the two staple street foods. Laffa shawarma is the Caesar salad of Israel!”
And perfect with hummus?
“Yes, a million percent!” he says.
A great laffa, he says, not as thick as a naan, but not as thin as a flatbread. “When you bite, it’s effortless, it’s like a cloud of air. You should eat it and not get full.” It’s a combination of the taboon oven, the slow fermentation “and a wheat that is 5000 years old!” he says.
If you’d like to try making a laffa-style bread at home, Solomonov has shared his recipe here; he suggests using a pizza stone or an upturned baking tray to cook the bread. It won’t be traditional laffa without the tandoor-style oven, but it will still be delicious!
Solomonov’s tips include using super-wet hands to tear off dough portions. Make each portion into a smooth ball and then close your hand to close the bottom of the dough ball (it’s easier to watch than describe! – watch it here). And when you try shaping it into a flat, thin disc with your hands, his advice here is reassuring too. “You want to whip it around – you don’t want it too perfect”, he says, because a little unevenness helps it bubble up during cooking. “It doesn’t have a pocket [like pita] – it will pocket a little bit, but it’s more bubbly and crispy, so when you like to scoop the hummus … you get crunchy and soft.”
Crunchy and soft, bubbly and crispy, foldable and tearable. What’s not to love about laffa!
Watch Michael Solomonov making laffa in F*ck That’s Delicious via SBS On Demand here.
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