The Minister Of Crab
With not one but two of his Colombo restaurants featuring on the prestigious Asia’s Top 50 list, Sri Lankan-Japanese chef Dharshan Munidasa proudly sits on the cusp of two food cultures.
By Riaan Jacob George
Dharshan Munidasa is probably one of the most social media savvy chefs you could encounter. One look at his buzzing Instagram account (@dharshanmunidasa) is enough to spark off a severe case of wanderlust in anyone. When he’s not jet setting between Colombo, Bangkok, Tokyo or London, hobnobbing with the world’s top chefs, hosting international dinners or raking up awards by the dozen, the part-Sri Lankan-part-Japanese chef is seen strolling through the scruffy fish markets of Colombo, picking out crabs and tuna from containers. But these Instagram posts go beyond mere photo-ops. The chef has, after all, put Sri Lankan fine dining on the international page with his two star ingredients – tuna and crab. Today, his two Colombo restaurants, Nihonbashi and Ministry of Crab feature on every traveller’s to-do list. In fact, he is one of the few chefs to have not one but two restaurants consistently make it to the prestigious Asia’s Top 50 Best Restaurants list. In addition, he also has another modern Sri Lankan restaurant Kaema Sutra in Colombo and The Tuna and The Crab in the Galle fort, specialising in his two star ingredients.
The story begins in 1995, in a leafy lane, off Colombo’s main thoroughfare Galle Face Road. Dharshan Munidasa opened his first restaurant, Nihonbashi, to bring quality Japanese fare to the cosmopolitan capital of the island nation. Initially, the chef says, Nihonbashi failed to attract local Sri Lankan diners and was mainly popular among Japanese expatriates. However, the popularity soon followed. In the wake of the immense success of Nihonbashi – and its smaller outposts in Colombo – he opened Ministry of Crab, in 2011, in partnership with his friends, Sri Lankan cricket legends Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene. Ministry of Crab, located in the 400-year-old Dutch Hospital precinct, has attained iconic status in Colombo and has established itself as a must-do on the tourist trail. Ministry, as you would expect, has a menu specialising in crabs, while other seafood also does feature.
Bringing Back Crabs
With Ministry of Crab, the chef has, in many ways, brought back the 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. Now, we have really stamped our ownership on the crab.” As a result, favourites like Black Pepper Crab and Chilli Crab, which have traditionally been associated with Singapore have now become staples at Ministry of Crab. The interesting part, however, is that the chef has managed to infuse his offering with his strong 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.” With respect to Sri Lankan cuisine, “We have always been under the shadow of Indian cuisine. But things have changed now. We are so much more than hoppers.”
The Father of Sri Lankan fine dining
Unanimously referred to as the father of the Sri Lankan fine dining scene, Dharshan Munidasa understands the responsibility that accompanies this title. “I’ve defined something totally different in the fine dining space by being very ingredient specific. Approaching stuff with so many different angles, which other chefs from traditional kitchens have not thought of. For instance, we don’t serve much rice at our restaurants. We serve more of the curries, with spices used differently.”
Where, then is modern Sri Lankan fare today? “I think it is hard to define authentic Sri Lankan cuisine because it has changed so much. Initially, we did not have the tradition of eating chilli. In the last 200 years, that has changed.
Today, rarely does one see a celebrity chef entering a market and getting his hands dirty picking ingredients. This is not true with Dharshan Munidasa. When he’s not at his restaurants, Munidasa is often photographed at fish markets holding up a huge tuna or clutching a giant crab. “In a way, I am showing off. Today, to go to a fish market and hold an entire fish is a luxury. Most chefs in Dubai or Singapore aren’t even touching the fish. It really is a luxury to touch and hold fresh fish, especially since there is so much packaged fish in the market. There was time when every single tuna in the restaurant was chosen by me. It was hectic and stressful but so much fun.
This leads us to our million-dollar question – could we possibly see a Ministry of Crab or Nihonbashi open in India soon? “Perhaps. On the Japanese side, maybe we could play the role of educators there. As for Ministry of Crab, the only condition I have is that we won’t change the menu much. I don’t know how the vegetarians will react. We do get some complaints from Indian visitors that we should have more vegetarian dishes. I tell them that we are a democracy and we have what we have. My belief is that if you believe in something, you need to serve it. You will be nowhere if you keep changing the menu to accommodate everyone. Take Japan, for example, there are specific restaurants for everything – tempura, yakitori, sushi etc. We simply need to learn to say no! That, in my opinion, is why Indian restaurants have not reached the same level as Japanese ones.”
As we chat, the chef leads us to his latest obsession, tucked away in one corner of Nihonbashi – The Taste Lab, which is basically a kitchen-laboratory in his office. “This is a place 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.”
With an aim to promote culinary discussion and exchange of ideas, the chef has set up “Chef’s Shack” a bed and breakfast “only for chefs” in Munidasa’s 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.”
(as appeared in the Sunday Standard)