Crabs to Kaema Su­tra – a heady mix for Dhar­shan Mu­nidasa

Sunday Times (Sri Lanka) - - NEWS / FEATURE -

AT THE DUTCH HOS­PI­TAL IN FORT: Take a mo­ment to savour this tasty morsel of news. Last year, more than 300 mil­lion ru­pees worth of crab was eaten by pa­trons at Sri Lanka’s best-known restau­rant!

That sounds like a lot of crus­taceans. But you must also take into ac­count that din­ing at the Min­istry of Crab does not come cheap, es­pe­cially if you are tuck­ing into a ‘Crabzilla’, a two-kilo­gram mon­ster that would set you back at least 26,000 ru­pees. Go­ing Dutch at the Dutch Hos­pi­tal would be the most sen­si­ble thing to do un­less you have deep pock­ets or an expense ac­count that wouldn’t even faze the ghosts that walk the cor­ri­dors of the his­toric site.

“It is not a se­cret. Not ev­ery­one can af­ford to eat there. We have to add 30 per cent to our sell­ing price be­cause of all the taxes, VAT and ser­vice charges and that adds up to a lot,” says Dhar­shan Mu­nidasa can­didly.

“But the price of crab is not dic­tated here in Sri Lanka in­stead it is de­pen­dent on costs out­side. It is be­cause we are not ap­pre­cia­tive of what we have, and that is why the Sri Lankan crab is much sought after and goes out of the coun­try.”

Sri Lankan crab has be­come a juicy and pre­mium ex­port, its sweet and suc­cu­lent flesh widely craved for by cus­tomers in the world’s cui­sine cap­i­tals like Sin­ga­pore and Hong Kong. It is a chili-hot prod­uct, so much so that some un­scrupu­lous over­seas restau­rants sell lo­cal va­ri­eties un­der the guise of the Sri Lankan crab brand.

Ja­panese in­gre­di­ents

There is a hint of irony in the story be­hind the birth of the Min­istry of Crab for founder and co-owner Dhar­shan, 47, be­gan his ven­ture sim­ply be­cause he wanted to get away from the thrall of be­ing de­pen­dent on buy­ing Ja­panese ing re­di­ents for Ni­hon­bashi, his first restau­rant.

“It was so pro­hib­i­tive im­port­ing the right Ja­panese in­gre­di­ents that I started look­ing in­wards, that’s how I found crab,” re­counts Dhar­shan whose love af­fair with cook­ing blos­somed while he was a penu­ri­ous grad­u­ate at the John Hop­kins Uni­ver­sity in the US where he com­pleted a dou­ble de­gree in com­puter en­gi­neer­ing and in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions in 1994.

One day while sourc­ing fresh tuna at the Pet­tah fish mar­ket for Ni­hon­bashi, Dhar­shan stum­bled upon a mot­ley crowd sort­ing out crabs putting them into a sack and a cage. Cu­ri­ous, he asked the crab-gang what they were do­ing and they said they were sep­a­rat­ing the meat crabs from the wa­ter crabs and help­fully pointed out how to tell the dif­fer­ence.

Dhar­shan bought one crab from each of the bun­dles, went home and put them into iden­ti­cal pots and turned the heat on. The meat crab was nicely steamed and the flesh was de­li­cious, the wa­ter crab had lit­tle flesh and was shriv­eled. An idea was per­co­lat­ing in his head.

After nearly 17 years of pro­vid­ing Ja­panese cui­sine with a Sri Lankan twist to the lo­cals – he is half-Ja­panese – Dhar­shan to­gether with close friends, crick­et­ing leg­ends Ma­hela Jayawar­dene and Kumar San­gakkara set up the Min­istry of Crab in late 2011.

“When we started, we had 60 to 100 peo­ple a day. To­day we serve 400 peo­ple (lunch and din­ner) and go through 200 crabs a day. It is a big busi­ness,” Dhar­shan re­minds us.

So big that this year four over­seas fran­chises will open in Bangkok, Mum­bai, Dubai and Manila. Ev­ery­thing, but the crab, will be Sri Lankan. He places a pre­mium on the fresh­ness of his main prod­uct, demon­strated by the ab­sence of freez­ers at his Min­istry.

For a man who started cook­ing on a one-dol­lar bud­get at uni­ver­sity (“and yet I ate bet­ter than my friends who ate dorm food which was so bad”), Dhar­shan has come a long way. Apar t from Ni­hon­bashi and the Min­istry of Crab, his other ven­ture is with Bol­ly­wood sweet­heart Jac­que­line Fer­nan­dez, Kaema Su­tra.

Crab curry at the Lon­don Shangri-La

“This is my favourite restau­rant of all. We be­gan at the Ar­cade but that didn’t take off and now we have moved to the Shangri-La and this has opened a whole new an­gle for me as we are soon go­ing to open a Kaema Su­tra at the Lon­don Shangri-La where din­ers will be able to eat hop­pers, crab curry and tuna curry,” Dhar­shan re­veals.

Life in the fast lane is bound to be­come even more hec­tic for Dhar­shan who also spends a lot of time sell­ing Sri Lanka cui­sine over­seas ( last year he went to Hong Kong on three oc­ca­sions - each a 10-day stint - to work for at the Hong Kong Jockey Club).

He has been forced to give up his two pur­suits, golf and fish­ing, as he tries to jug­gle his time be­tween all his restau­rants. To find time for his two dar­lings – two toy poo­dles, Quin­tes­sen­tial Brat and Princess Grace – he brings them to work.

So is it true that on a Poya Day crabs are smaller and lack flesh. This is an old wives’ tale, a myth, ac­cord­ing to Dhar­shan. Yet, on a Poya, the Min­istry of Crab is closed. That is the only day of the month the kitchen ceases to hum, but the restau­rant keeps it doors open.

“We keep the lights on un­til 8 pm ev­ery Poya Day so we can tell our guests that we are sorry and apol­o­gise for be­ing closed,” ex­plains Dhar­shan show­ing his Ja­panese side of his char­ac­ter.

Nine of the 10 lights that high­light the va­ri­ety of crabs on of­fer are switched on. Only Crabzilla – a name Dhar­shan cre­ated after watch­ing the movie in 2013 – is un­lit. His sole sup­plier has been un­able to pro­vide the gi­ant crawlie on the day we catch up for a chat at the Min­istry.

A gi­ant pic­ture of Dhar­shan takes cen­tre-stage on the wall at the open and airy room with very ba­sic, and rus­tic, fur­nish­ing. If one misses the mes­sage of what is on sale, crab claws are the only plants on show. Above Dhar­shan’s im­age is the line ‘All crabs are not cre­ated equal’ a play on the US dec­la­ra­tion of in­de­pen­dence: “that all men are cre­ated equal”.

It is just a fun thing laughs Dhar­shan when we ask him if there is any hid­den mes­sage in his own dec­la­ra­tion. Yes, crabs are in­deed not equal. For in­stance, Dhar­shan prefers his gar­lic chili crab as his sig­na­ture dish, above equals.

But if you like co­rian­der leaves or a lit­tle bit of lemon grass, you won’t find it at the Min­istry. Dhar­shan dis­likes both. And his main love is Ja­panese cui­sine, which has earned him the ad­mi­ra­tion and recog­ni­tion from the Ja­panese govern­ment who con­ferred the ti­tle of Cool Ja­pan am­bas­sador on him in 2014.

How cool would it be if the Sri Lanka govern­ment would also do some­thing sim­i­lar to a man who is tak­ing the lo­cal cui­sine to the world? But don’t hold your breath on that hap­pen­ing soon for what can you ex­pect from our bunch of leg­is­la­tors who took ex­cep­tion to the name of this restau­rant as it had ‘Min­istry’ in it.

Sri Lankan crab has be­come a juicy and pre­mium ex­port, its sweet and suc­cu­lent flesh widely craved for by cus­tomers in the world’s cui­sine cap­i­tals like Sin­ga­pore and Hong Kong.

Per­haps they were wor­ried that peo­ple might think they walked side­ways too (like crabs)!

Dhar­shan Mu­nidasa. Pix by Athula De­vap­riya

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