The story behind Ima’s famous hot cross buns

Yael Shochat is the Israeli-born founder of Ima Cuisine, a Middle Eastern restaurant in the heart of Auckland CBD.

After falling for a New Zealander when studying in England, Yael reluctantly made the move to New Zealand in the 90s. A place she felt was far too small, but it drew her in as it was green and seemed to have a future. Yael’s background was in biochemistry and then ceramics, but cooking had always been in her blood, and she yearned for her home cuisine in New Zealand.

After a few catering jobs here and there, her passion for food was reignited. First, she opened a lunchtime spot called City Lunch box on Shortland Street, but keen to offer dinner, she decided to expand and open Ima - which means mother in Hebrew.

Ima Cuisine has been an institution on Fort Street for the past 17 years and is now also famous for its iconic hot cross buns that make an appearance once a year. We spoke to Yael to learn more about her background, family, and those notorious buns.

ONE | Alongside Middle Eastern cuisine, you’re well-known for your delicious hot cross buns. Can you tell us a little about the history of these, when and how you came to start making them?

I didn’t grow up eating hot cross buns, but back in 2004 I stumbled across a recipe I liked, and tweaked it a little. It was different from the traditional bun, and people just went nuts for them.

We weren’t a bakery, and by no means did we have the machinery to be producing the number of buns we were, but each year we continued to make them at Easter and the following for them has grown each year.

TWO | From experience - sometimes getting your hands on these tasty morsels can be hard unless you pre-order them. When did they reach cult status?

In 2018, a journalist wrote a story about them for the Jetstar inflight magazine. She called them the ‘best hot cross buns in the world’. People saw this and began coming in specifically for the buns, and it caught the attention of NZ Herald. They came in to do a video on Ima and the buns just before Easter, and posted it online that evening. 200,000 people viewed that video overnight, and in the morning we arrived to a queue of people down the street. It was crazy, we were completely taken by surprise and so unorganised.

By the next year, we had a solid plan with spreadsheets, and we’re now making buns in the thousands each day around Easter.

THREE | What’s the best way to enjoy the hot cross bun, toasted or fresh? What’s the best beverage to accompany?

Toasted with butter, and a coffee.

FOUR | Easter is often a time to come together and spend time with family or loved ones. Can you tell us about your favourite meal to prepare and enjoy with family?

There isn’t one particular meal, but we are hugely vegetable focused. So every family dinner will have at least one salad and two vegetable dishes, filled with loads of different herbs. Rather than one favourite dish, flavours and textures are important to use so we cook with this in mind.

FIVE | Dining at Ima often feels like a home away from home. You’re famous for big sharing plates, coming together in more of a family style of eating. Was creating an inviting, casual atmosphere intentional, and can you speak to the feeling you hope people experience at Ima?

Good food makes me happy. I had a bit of an ‘ah-ha’ moment after my Grandmother passed away. A friend of mine took me out for a very special meal, and that experience completely lifted my mood. It taught me the importance of good food, and I realised that I can also do this for others. I can make people happy with my food, and that’s a big thing for me. The ability to change someone's day for the better, on a regular basis is why I do this.

My team is a family, we all genuinely like each other and they care. This creates an inviting space at Ima. If they share love for one another and the food, people visiting will feel this too and feel at home.

SIX | Like many families, we’re sure there are some incredible recipes passed down between generations at Ima Cuisine. Is there one recipe in particular that you would love to (or maybe you have already) pass down to your own daughters?

There’s many recipes, but I think I’ve passed down more so an ethos of food, and how it makes people feel. My three daughters are all great cooks themselves.