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The Bodhi Tree (Christchurch)

397-399 Ilam Rd, Bryndwr, ph: 03-377 6808

by Ewan Sargent | Cuisine issue #153 | Monday, 30 July, 2012
It was the best Burmese meal I’ve eaten in New Zealand. It was the largest Burmese meal I’ve eaten in New Zealand. Also, upon reflection, the smallest, spiciest, blandest, most authentic, least authentic and so on. Yes, it’s an old joke, but a gimme after a night out at the country’s only Burmese restaurant.

In a roundabout way, this highlights the unknown world you enter when dining at The Bodhi Tree. Like many, I’ve dashed from one Asian cuisine to another (with a detour around kimchi) in the hunt for new experiences. But when the dash has slowed to a walk and “same-old, same-old” begins rearing its head, there’s still a final frontier that you can cross only in Christchurch: Burmese.

Eating Burmese-style is to share flavoursome dishes that enhance steamed rice, which is typically the main component of a meal. The ingredients are by and large easily recognisable, but the treatment and philosophy is excitingly different. It’s the place to take jaded palates and there must be plenty of those because The Bodhi Tree has been part of the Christchurch dining scene for 10 years and remains frantically busy.

The woman who took our Saturday night booking was apologetically specific: we had from 6pm to 7.30pm. Okay? It was like agreeing to a contract. I mumbled yes.

The Bodhi Tree has reopened in humble new premises in the suburbs after losing its original home in last year’s February earthquake. The restaurant is sparse and functional, clearly relying on food rather than decor to create a Burmese atmosphere.

All main dishes are entree size (and priced as such), but first come “nibbly bits”, as the menu describes them. Our choices were le pet thoke – pickled tea leaf salad, and toku jo – deep-fried split pea tofu.

The tea leaf salad is so famous in Christchurch it will no doubt have a film made about it one day – but for good reason. The mound of nuts, seeds and lentils is flavoured with pickled tea leaves. The overall effect is of amazing texture contrasts and an exotic salty-sour earthiness. The deep-fried split pea tofu came with a garlic and tomato sauce with a serious kick.

For the main event, the dishes flowed quickly, one and two at a time – intended to be shared and added to the rice on your “home” plate. Burmese cuisine can be very localised and so, I’m told, the menu is a “snapshot of dishes” from a variety of the country’s regions.

Our line-up included spicy sauteed blue peas and shallots; shredded green papaya salad; a fillet of fish in a tomato, chilli and coriander gravy; shredded chicken salad; marinated lamb chunks on a skewer with a chilli mint sauce; and grilled eggplant.

Impressively, each dish had a unique sauce treatment, providing individual hits of flavour on the rice. Perhaps an overarching flavour might be shallots, either sprinkled, or as oil, plus a dose of fish sauce here and there.

So far, so good. But there was some unevenness among the dishes. While my stars were the shredded chicken salad, with dark, savoury notes in the dressing, and the spicy marinated lamb, both the blue peas and the eggplant seemed too mushy and bland.

The service is uneven, too, suffering from having too few waitstaff. With a dining window of only an hour and a half, those staff working the night we dined struggled to manage drinks needs, eventually abandoning that role.

The evening came to an awkward end when it was pointed out that our lingering had forced incoming diners planned for our table to be redirected to other tables. The mumbled “yes” came back to haunt me. But then that shredded chicken salad also still haunts me, so I’ll definitely I’ll be back. I can’t get it anywhere else.

The Bodhi Tree
397-399 Ilam Rd, Bryndwr,
ph: 03-377 6808,
Dinner Tues-Sat from 6pm
All dishes entree-sized $12-$17


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