Ima, 53 Fort St, Auckland, New Zealand
It’s said that Jewish mothers have a lot to answer for, but sometimes they have a lot to be thanked for. Yael Sochat grew up in Haifa, in northern Israel, where her mother taught her to cook. Having migrated to Britain she married a New Zealander, with whom she finally settled in Auckland. She opened a restaurant there in 2000 in which she put into practice the lessons learned from her mother, and its successor, Ima (Hebrew for ‘mother’) is superb.
On settling into your table you are provided with a bottle of sparkling water, an excellent practice that occurs elsewhere in Auckland. We went on to order two dishes, both meant to be shared. The first to arrive was a large dish of five salads: a standard Arab mixture of lentils with onion and nuts, spinach with garlic, a bright red concoction of tomato, red onion, beetroot and radishes, a Tunisian dish of carrot and fetta, and cabbage slaw. I’ve listed them in the order of the pleasure they gave me, but each was a delight, beautifully fresh, attractive to the eye even in the somewhat dark area where we were sitting, and prepared in a way that displayed the tastes of the various ingredients to at their best.
We also enjoyed a plate of sabich, made up of chickpeas, potatoes, aubergine,and tahini. I’d never heard of this dish, which turns out to have been brought to Israel by immigrants from Iraq; to make it acceptable to vegans, the version served at Ima substitutes chickpeas for the hard boiled eggs that form part of it in Israel. The ingredients had been assembled rather than cooked together, and the dish is popular in Israel, apparently because its constituents can be prepared in advance and thrown together on the Sabbath without violating the commandment to abstain from work on that day.
We washed our meal down with an excellent bottle of red wine, a dark and smooth blend of Merlot, Cabernet, and Petit Verdot from a nearby vineyard, Obsidian. It’s located on the wondrous Waiheke Island, just to the east of Auckland, where the microclimate has allowed a number of vineyards to flourish in recent years.
Yael Sochat has written an excellent cook book, Ima Cuisine (on sale at the restaurant, but cheaper elsewhere in Auckland). An introduction by David Cohen outlines the principles behind her cooking, in a way that makes you want to head for the kitchen, although I have to say that the recipe for latkes is tricky. No less than the restaurant, the book provides a wonderful point of entry to the rich cuisine that has developed in Israel, and it will serve as a lasting reminder of one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten.