While I was in Sri Lanka’s capital city, Colombo, I had the honor of being a guest at the world-renowned Ministry of Crab (MoC), curated by none other than Lanka’s most recognizable chef, Dharshan Munidasa. Foodies headed to the teardrop-shaped island need to add this crabby spot to your itinerary, now! This ain’t no Joe’s Crab Shack with neon lights and frozen crab legs. A culinary journey awaits you of sweet, succulent crabs and king prawns. Both are caught locally in freshwater rivers and lagoons.
MoC was at the forefront of embracing the natural resource of crab in Sri Lanka back in 2011 and has enjoyed quite the year so far. Dharshan Munidasa represented Sri Lanka at the World Gourmet Summit in Singapore and at the World Gourmet Festival in Mumbai. Two of his restaurants were included in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants List yet again, making Nihonbashi (since 2013) and Ministry of Crab (since 2015) the only Sri Lankan restaurants on the list. The Sri Lankan-Japanese Chef has put Sri Lanka on the culinary map, which he states is “both a blessing and burden. It is an amazing thing to happen but also means that the pressure is on.”
Situated in what was once the mortuary of a 17th-century Dutch hospital, the seafood haven is decorated to compliment the restored historic building. Classic accents like modern rose gold chandeliers, dark wood vaulted ceilings, vibrant orange accents, and long-stemmed crab claw flowers complement the preserved floors and walls for a charming interior. An open kitchen allows for guests to partake and witness their meal being created by local cooks who prepare each dish tenderly with love. The attention to detail that was given to the ambiance reflects in the menu that will have your taste buds salivating just as you read through the seafood selection.
The shellfish selection is fierce, only the best catch of the day is served fresh daily at MoC. Small, meatless crabs don’t make the cut and neither do crabs that are missing a claw or have uneven pinchers. All ingredients used are fresh, nothing is ever frozen. Diners can choose the size of their crab, the smallest being 1/2 a kilo! If that’s considered small there’s no surprise that the largest size is called Crabzilla and is easily over 2 kilos. In between, you’ll find the Jumbo, Colossal, and OMG!!! which each weigh in over 1 kilo. Shrimps are also available in a gradient of sizes from Big Prawn, at 200g, to Prawnzilla, over 500g!
Of course, I devoured the signature sauce, and Munidasa’s favorite, garlic chili. My massive freshwater prawn was doused in the perfect portion of sauce that combines Italian olive oil, garlic, Sri Lankan chili flakes, and Japanese soy sauce. I believe I tried the Yodha Prawn which was 300g of heavenly melt-in-your-mouth shellfish. The plating was gorgeous but I was delighted to see that the freshly made sambal was served in the coconut that produced the condiment.
Then came the real show stopper of the culinary experience, the humungous 1kg black pepper crab. Black pepper is actually much more Sri Lankan than the now popular spice, red chili. The pepper is locally grown and was a staple in all Sri Lankan curries before new spices were introduced to the island. The crab is submerged in hand crushed peppercorns that have been rolled using a traditional miris gala embedded in pepper stock. The flavor is powerful and scrumptious–a wonderful, spicy, compliment to the sweet crab. Neither were extremely hot in spice but can be served mild for those with a more bland palette. Both dishes must be consumed with wood-fired oven baked kade bread. To waste even a drop of the decadent sauces would be a crime.
When I dined at MoC Munidasa was actually in Japan personally sourcing ingredients for an upcoming meal he’d be preparing in India. I didn’t get the chance to meet the internationally acclaimed chef but he was kind enough to answer my queries. Read on for his remarks about his path to being the most recognized Sri Lankan chef in the world. I bet you don’t know any other globally renounced chefs who love a simple food that we can certainly all create, omelets.
What inspired you to bring the crabs back to Sri Lankan and reclaim their glory from Singapore?
Pride. To me, it was rather annoying that Sri Lankan Crabs were not revered by Sri Lankans. We never looked at it as a great ingredient. We just accepted that the best ones were exported. Singapore did a great job of realizing how great our crabs were and single handily made it a brand for us, but it was the time that we Sri Lankans put this crab back on its glorious pedestal back at home.
How many crabs and prawns are served on a daily basis at MoC?
We prepare a lot of crabs and prawns every day but it is totally supply driven by the wild catch. The best day was probably about 200 crabs and 250 half-pound freshwater prawns. Every day is a special day for us, having so many guests enjoying what we serve.
Are you dishes influenced by the Sri Lankan traditional of Ayurveda at all?
More than my dishes, it is a drink that is served in all my restaurants called centella. It is made out of gotukola or centella assiatica, an Ayurvedic green that is used for better memory retention and has anti-aging properties. This is blended together with King coconut water to create an amazing, refreshing juice which has quite a big demand.
You were one of the first restaurateurs worldwide to use iPads for menus, how do you expect technology to affect the culinary industry in the future?
A fisherman can take a picture of a fish and send it to us in the morning and I think that’s a great use of technology in our industry. Technology also opens up the number of ways that we can communicate with our guests. For instance, with the wine list someone may not be able to recall a wine by name but may remember the label, so flipping through the photo album on our iPad menu where we have inpidually categorized wines into red wines, white wines, bubbles etc. or even by region, makes wine choice easier.
At Ministry of Crab, we don’t have a freezer and I think that’s anti-technology and going back to the roots of what a restaurant should and can be. Not everyone can do this but we can and we want to remind both the world and other chefs that sometimes old school is better than new school.
Do you always travel with local ingredients and go source your own ingredients around the globe?
When it comes to Japanese food, yes, I definitely go straight to Japan. In India, we tried to source the crab locally but it was really, really difficult. But that’s what real cooking is all about, you deal with what’s locally available and as much as it would be easy to air freight the required number of crabs plus a few more adjusting for mortality etc. it’s not giving respect to what’s available locally.
Where do you travel when you get to explore on your own, and not for work?
Italy and France. Just for the wines and the food, from the simple cuisine of the Tuscan roadside to gourmet dinners in the city of Paris. Going to the fish markets of any country has always been a fun thing for me to do and being able to cook some of the great fish from these markets has been even more fun.
What international dish do you dream of trying?
The omelets at La Mère Poulard, a tiny restaurant in Mont Saint-Michel, France. I’ve seen videos and it’s a place I’m dying to go to. It boils down what we do as chefs which take a simple ingredient and make something great out of it – I’m talking about an omelet!
What is the one traditional dish that travelers must try in Sri Lanka and in Japan?
In Sri Lanka, it would be the hopper, which is a bowl-shaped dish made of rice flour with a soft center and crispy edges. Try it with tuna ambul thial curry. Sri Lanka is one of the few tuna eating countries of the world and we make this specialized tuna curry that is definitely a must try.
A must eat in Japan is chicken sashimi. It is not easily found but it’s a great dish to have at a very good yakitori restaurant.
Outside of Sri Lankan and Japanese, what is your favorite cuisine?
Italian. Its simplicity resembles Japanese cuisine. Their course based cuisine and seafood dishes are very close to Japanese in approach. Great olive oil and amazing sashimi of oysters, scallops, tuna add to its allure to me.
As you’re self-taught are there any other international chefs who influenced you as you were learning the trade?
I was influenced by the chefs at every sushi restaurant I’ve been to in Japan. It’s amazing how they take a simple ingredient and create an amazing piece of sushi, a platter of sashimi, and the conversation that goes on in real sushi restaurants. This is before Michelin stepped into Tokyo and before conveyor belt sushi became the norm. This was when you would pay your respects to the owner of the sushi counter and have a conversation with them. That’s how I was brought up, that’s how I actually went to sushi restaurants for the first 40 years of my life and those conversations taught me a lot.
Do you have a secret to success to share with other entrepreneurs with big dreams from humble beginnings?
If what you do is original, it may be so ahead of its time that you might not even realize how ahead of its time it is. In the restaurant industry, we are constantly trying to create something new or revisit something old. The moment you start listening to guest comments you will lose that creativity, you will lose that edge, and eventually become the same as everyone else around you. So hold on to your guns, believe in what you do, and great things can happen.
Thank you, Ministry of Crab, for treating me to an amazing meal. All opinions and photos are my own. Please read the Miss Filatelista disclosure policy for more information.