The magical minister of crab
By Riaan Jacob George | Express News Service | Published: 18th March 2017 10:00 PM |
Sri Lankan and Japanese chef Dharshan Munidasa has put Sri Lankan fine dining on the international page with his two star ingredients, tuna and crab. His two Colombo restaurants, Nihonbashi and Ministry of Crab, feature on every traveller’s to-do list. He is one of the few chefs to have two restaurants consistently make it to Asia’s Top 50 Best Restaurants list. His other Sri Lankan restaurant Kaema Sutra in Colombo and The Tuna and The Crab in the Galle fort specialise in tuna and crab.
It all began in 1995 in a leafy lane off Colombo’s main thoroughfare Galle Face Road. Munidasa’s first restaurant, Nihonbashi, was about quality Japanese fare in the cosmopolitan capital of the island nation. Initially, Nihonbashi failed to attract local diners and was mainly popular among Japanese expatriates. However, its popularity soon followed. In the wake of Nihonbashi’s immense success, he opened Ministry of Crab in 2011 in partnership with his friends Sri Lankan cricket legends Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene. Ministry of Crab in the 400-year-old Dutch Hospital precinct specialises in crab.
With Ministry of Crab, Munidasa has brought back crab to Sri Lanka, giving it global recognition. “Singapore put crab on the international stage long before us. No one in Sri Lanka did that. We have stamped our ownership on the crab,” he says. As a result, favourites such as Black Pepper Crab and Chilli Crab, which have traditionally been associated with Singapore, are now staples at Ministry of Crab. The chef has infused his dishes with a Japanese identity. This starts with formal techniques and breaking down ingredients to basics. “There has never been a method for cutting fish using a certain part of the chicken for a Sri Lankan curry. It’s just cut up and put in. We need to start understanding what each piece tastes like. That’s what I do, I start with each ingredient. Bringing it down to a science, that is something that the whole of south Asia lacks,” he explains.
He rarely changes the menu at Ministry of Crab. “We get some complaints from Indian visitors that we should have more vegetarian dishes. I tell them we are a democracy and we have what we have. You will be nowhere if you keep changing the menu to accommodate everyone. In Japan, there are specific restaurants for everything—tempura, yakitori, sushi, etc. We simply need to learn to say no. That is why Indian restaurants have not reached the same level as Japanese ones,” says Munidasa.
His newest obsession is tucked away in a corner of Nihonbashi. The Taste Lab, a kitchen-laboratory in his office. “This where my staff can watch and learn from me. With new restaurants coming up, I have a lot of work in here. Recipes will get written here. We will have tasters and testers and photography won’t be allowed,” he says.
To promote culinary discussion and ideas, Munidasa has set up Chef’s Shack, a bed and breakfast only for chefs in his home. Chefs from around the world come to Sri Lanka, live under Munidasa’s roof and cook in his kitchen. “The philosophy is about a restaurant owner sharing his home with another chef. It’s not so much about making money,” he says.