DHAR­SHAN MU­NIDASA

Sri Lanka’s preem­i­nent chef and restau­ra­teur has been rein­vent­ing Colombo’s din­ing scene

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When Dhar­shan Mu­nidasa left Sri Lanka to pur­sue a dou­ble de­gree in com­puter en­gi­neer­ing and in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions at John Hop­kins Univer­sity in the US, he didn’t ex­pect to em­bark on an all-new ca­reer as a chef. Un­able to palate the meals served in the cafe­te­ria, the young Dhar­shan cooked first for him­self in his dorm, then for his fel­low stu­dents, at­tract­ing oth­ers to the unique flavours of his Sri Lankan and Ja­panese her­itage.

A year af­ter his re­turn to Colombo, he opened the first Ja­panese restau­rant in Sri Lanka. Although Dhar­shan lacked any for­mal training in the kitchen, Ni­hon­bashi be­came a must-eat des­ti­na­tion, a sta­tus it re­tains to­day. Here, Ja­panese-in­spired dishes are pre­sented with fi­nesse and Sri Lankan flair, from the curry leaf in tem­pura bat­ter to Olive Oil Kake Tai Cha and the mor­eish bites of chicken grilled over char­coal in the open-air Yak­i­tori Gar­den.

In the 23 years since open­ing Ni­hon­bashi, Dhar­shan him­self has been recog­nised as Sri Lanka’s preem­i­nent chef and restau­ra­teur, host­ing his own TV show across Sri Lanka and Ja­pan, Culi­nary Jour­neys with Dhar­shan, fea­tur­ing on An­thony Bour­dain’s Parts Un­known doc­u­men­tary and cre­at­ing an em­pire of restau­rants in Colombo and Galle Fort. The best known of these is Min­istry of Crab, which cel­e­brated six years of cham­pi­oning Sri Lanka’s ex­portqual­ity crus­tacean in De­cem­ber 2017. While Ni­hon­bashi is ranked 45th on the 2018 Asia’s 50 Best Restau­rants list, Min­istry of Crab sits at num­ber 25.

In praise of crab The restau­rant’s premise is sim­ple: to hon­our the best of Sri Lanka’s mud or la­goon crab with a fresh, no-freezer pol­icy. With so many of the coun­try’s finest crustaceans ex­ported to Sin­ga­pore (where it stars in the na­tional dish, chilli crab), Dhar­shan seeks to re­store crab to its right­ful place within Sri Lankan cook­ing. This means keep­ing some of the finest spec­i­mens – fondly called crabzil­las – on the is­land.

Min­istry of Crab, how­ever, is more than an ide­ol­ogy. Dhar­shan and his fel­low co-own­ers, crick­et­ing leg­ends Ma­hela Jayawar­dene and Ku­mar San­gakkara, see the restau­rant as a cel­e­bra­tion of Sri Lankan her­itage and the is­land’s pro­duce. Within the sur­rounds of the 400-year-old Dutch Hos­pi­tal shopping precinct, din­ers read ‘The Con­sti­tu­tion’ – Ar­ti­cle V. states that “dig­ging in with your hands is not frowned upon” – as they em­bark on a culi­nary journey.

Kaema Su­tra, Dhar­shan’s third restau­rant, was cre­ated in part­ner­ship with Bollywood ac­tor Jac­que­line Fer­nan­dez, and moved to the fourth floor of the new Shangri-La Ho­tel in Colombo in De­cem­ber. The set­ting is el­e­gant, weav­ing be­tween the sim­plic­ity of Ja­panese in­te­rior de­signer, Ry­oichi Ni­wata, and Sri Lankan ac­cents. The view is also a draw­card thanks to the open-air ter­race over­look­ing the In­dian Ocean. This is the place to try the lo­cal sta­ple, hop­pers. These bowl-shaped pan­cakes are reimag­ined with gourmet flair, such as the savoury squid ink ‘Black Hop­per’ or the sig­na­ture ‘What the Hop­per’ dessert with whipped curd, straw­ber­ries and trea­cle.

Recog­ni­tion abroad Such culi­nary in­no­va­tion has led Dhar­shan to be recog­nised far beyond Sri Lanka’s shores. His work in Ja­panese culi­nary cul­ture saw him awarded The Min­is­ter’s Award for Over­seas Pro­mo­tion of Ja­panese Food by the Ja­panese Gov­ern­ment in 2014. Dhar­shan was also ap­pointed a “Cool Ja­pan” Am­bas­sador by the Ja­panese Gov­ern­ment.

Else­where, Min­istry of Crab pop-up restau­rants are sought-af­ter gourmet events, with a three-day Lon­don ap­pear­ance sell­ing out be­fore the first night. Dhar­shan will also be host­ing fur­ther pop-ups in 2018 in Sin­ga­pore and Tokyo to de­light din­ers with an au­then­tic taste of Sri Lanka.

Travel file

Din­ing

ni­hon­bashi.lk min­istry­ofcrab.com shangri-la.com/colombo

Ex­pe­ri­ence

Min­istry of Crab pop-ups are com­ing to Shangri-La Ho­tel, Sin­ga­pore (11–13 July) and Shangri-La Ho­tel, Tokyo (25–28 Septem­ber). Reser­va­tions should be made di­rectly through the re­spec­tive ho­tel. shangri-la.com

“Min­istry of Crab pop-up restau­rants are sought-af­ter gourmet events from Lon­don to Tokyo.”

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01 Kaema Su­tra’s in­te­ri­ors fuse Ja­panese sim­plic­ity and Sri Lankan ac­cents © Markus Gortz 02 Fresh­wa­ter prawn is a spe­cialty at Min­istry of Crab 03 Sri Lankan mud crab is hon­oured with a no-freezer pol­icy 04 The sig­na­ture Olive Oil Kake Tai Cha at Ni­hon­bashi

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