Crabs to Kaema Sutra – a heady mix for Dharshan Munidasa
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.
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