Life in a lafa

The reason the nafnaf is so popular in this country is because many Israelis do not know how to start a fire.

The frst secret of pita/lafa baking is a very hot  oven and a very short bake (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The frst secret of pita/lafa baking is a very hot oven and a very short bake
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In Temple times, the kohanim would ceremoniously wave sacrifices (animal and bread) in the air in a similar fashion to the way we wave the lulav and etrog during Sukkot. Almost two millennia later, it appears that this ancient custom is making a comeback and is being reconstructed by millions of Israelis every year on Independence Day.
I do not refer to the reinstatement or enactment of Temple sacrifices, of course, but rather to the more modern Jewish tradition of waving called nafnaf. This ritual involves grasping a flat plastic sheet (that resembles a fly swatter on steroids) between your thumb and fingers and vigorously agitating it back and forth in a waving action over a contraption called a mangal. This galvanized metal box, which comes in two versions: the short-legged one for those who yearn for chronic back pain and the long-legged one for those who already suffer from it, containing a pile of smoking, fuel-soaked, spluttering coals desperately gasping for life.
The reason the nafnaf is so popular in this country and almost unheard of in Scandinavia, for example, is because, unlike their brethren in the far-flung reaches of the northern hemisphere, Israelis do not know how to start a fire. For those unacquainted with this quasi-ritual, you will probably be familiar with its American cousin – the barbecue! It is a matter of record how much meat and semolina flour were consumed in the Temple per annum, but as far as I know there have been no comparative studies done on how much meat and bread are consumed each year on Israel’s Independence Day. The latter probably wins by a mile! Each year on 5 Iyar, our nation celebrates independence by becoming enveloped in a smoky haze. While dad is furiously gesticulating with his nafnaf, the kids are chasing each other waving a childsafe version of the same – the pita. If the national Independence Food is red meat and lots of it, the Independence Bread is undoubtedly the pita.
The ubiquitous pita, Israel’s staple bread, probably got its name from a derivative of the ancient Roman pizza, which traveled with Sephardic Jews to Greece in the 16th century. The word was incorporated into the Ladino dialect and subsequently became part and parcel of modern Hebrew.
While the word “pita” is a relative newbie on the historical timeline, the actual bread existed long before under different names. There are two main types of pita: the pocket pita, with a central air pocket; and the larger round flatbread, sans the central air pocket, that is used as a wrap, commonly known as Iraqi pita or lafa.
Pocket pitot are made by flattening rounds of dough to the thickness of a finger and baking them under immense heat (over 350º) in stone or gas ovens for about a minute or two until they balloon up, whereupon they are scooped out of the oven and placed on wire racks to cool. Lafa is also made by flattening dough rounds, but much thinner than the pocket pita, about a half a centimeter thick, and then draped over a “saj,” a kind of inverted pan that is heated over an open fire, until the bread begins to bubble and brown..
It is not a simple matter to bake pocket pitot in a picnic setting, but it is trivial and even fun to make your own lafa-style pita.
All you need is a wok-shaped pan with a curved base. The best kind is the cheapest wok you can find, without expensive Teflon coatings (which will be destroyed anyway over the fire). Expert barbecuers will tell you that there is a period of “wasted time” just after the fire really gets going and the coals begin to glow, when it is too hot to put the meat on the grill.
This is the perfect time to whip out the metal wok and place it over the high flames to heat (curved side up) and when it is piping hot, to roll out balls of dough (recipe below) and drape them over the pan. When they start to bubble and brown, use the BBQ tongs to take them off the pan and place them on a towel to cool. Once you have a whole stack of lafas, wrap them completely in the towel while still warm, to ensure they don’t dry out and maintain their flexibility. Instead of plain lafas you may smear some olive oil over the flattened dough and sprinkle it with za’atar spice.
These delicious, fresh lafas may then be used like tortilla wraps to embrace sausages, kebabs, steaks and other carnivorous delights, coupled with fresh salads and a healthy spread of hummus before wrapping.
I don’t know if King Solomon and the high priests would have approved of this modern rendition of the ancient traditions, but perhaps it is fitting that our nation celebrating rebirth has subliminally chosen to do so in a way reminiscent of the ancient days of glory.
The writer, a master baker originally from Johannesburg, South Africa, lives in Karnei Shomron with his wife Sheryl and four children.
He is CEO of the Saidel Artisan Baking Institute (www.saidels.com), that specializes in training and education in the field of organic, healthy, artisan baking and ’’the inventor of Rambam Bread. He also lectures and works as a consultant in the fields of cereal chemistry, health, nutrition and authentic Jewish bread.


Lafa dough (Makes 12 lafa wraps)
1.5 kg. flour 900 ml. cool water (approx. 4 cups) straight from the faucet, not warmed 5 tsp. salt 5 tsp. sugar 2 tsp. instant dried yeast Mix and knead dough for 10 minutes by hand or six minutes in the mixer just before you leave for the picnic. Coat dough well in flour and close in a plastic bag kept in the cooler box. Take along some extra flour to help rolling the lafas.
About 60 to 90 minutes later, when you have arrived at your site and the fire is going, divide the dough into 12 balls and roll them into flat rounds (half a centimeter thick) with a rolling pin on a vegetable slicing board. Baste with olive oil and za’atar and hand them to dad to drape over the heated inverted wok pan as described above.