SINGAPORE (THE BUSINESS TIMES) - "I don't have a freezer in my restaurant," declares Dharshan Munidasa. That is how you know you are getting fresh seafood at his Sri Lanka restaurant, Ministry of Crab. Their seafood is caught early in the morning, transported to the restaurant within about 45 minutes, and served to guests that same day.
It's no wonder his five-year-old crab-centric restaurant in Colombo is one of only two restaurants in the country to appear on the Asia's 50 Best Restaurants list. The other is his 22-year-old Japanese restaurant Nihonbashi.
"All good food, for me, starts with ingredients," says the 46-year-old chef, who is half-Sri Lankan and half-Japanese.
Garlic Chilli Crab
150ml olive oil
2 Tbs chopped garlic
150ml chicken stock
3 Tbs soy sauce
1 tsp chilli flakes
1. Clean the crab and cut it into six pieces.
2. Heat the olive oil in a large pan.
3. Sauté the garlic until golden brown.
4. Stir in the chilli flakes.
5. Add the crab and do a quick stir.
6. Add chicken stock and cook for 15 to 20 minutes (depending on size of the crab).
7. Reduce the stock on high heat until only the oil remains.
8. Stir in the soy sauce.
Born in Japan, he grew up with an appreciation for ingredients the Japanese way. "I paid attention to what I was eating and that's where it all started. Japanese food is very transparent, it's about the celebration of an ingredient," he explains.
At the age of seven, he moved to Sri Lanka and went to school there, where he also collected many memories of good food. "There was a time when we wanted to have good sashimi, we would go and fish. You can still do that in Sri Lanka. My brother and I used to cycle to a river about 10 minutes away from our house and go fishing. It's a naturally rich country," he describes.
"We have the best tea, we have sugar cane, cinnamon. The salt we produce is some of the best in the world. Sri Lanka has a lot of natural resources that no one has realised yet. Our F&B comes from a background of hotels, and has not quite evolved because of the civil war."
He was drawn to cooking only when he was studying computer engineering and international relations at Johns Hopkins University. He found the food in the US at the time atrocious. Driven by hunger, he started making his own meals.
"I could never eat bad food. So I started making my own pickles out of daikon, using salt I carried over from Sri Lanka. Twice a week, my lunch was rice, misoshiru (miso soup), tsukemono (preserved vegetables), yakisakana (grilled fish). It wasn't an expensive thing to make in America, it just took time and effort," he recalls.
Opening his own restaurant came about by chance, too. Six months before his graduation, his father died, so he gave up his IT-related job in Tokyo to return to Sri Lanka to handle family affairs.
"My dad was always talking about a restaurant, but he never got around to it. So I asked my mum if she wanted to do that restaurant Dad was talking about, and that's how we got into it," he says. After opening what is now Nihonbashi, he later added Ministry of Crab, seafood restaurant The Tuna & The Crab, as well as a contemporary Sri Lankan restaurant Kaema Sutra.
But what is Sri Lankan cuisine in the first place? "In a nutshell, Sri Lankan food is curry. It's very different from North Indian cuisine, but close to South Indian food, except it's a bit lighter because we use less ghee and coconut milk," he describes.
So at Kaema Sutra, he serves some refined versions of traditional Sri Lankan dishes, including about nine slow-cooked curries and six a la minute curries. As one of the few prominent Sri Lankan chefs, he considers it his personal mission to take his country's cuisine to the next level.
"For instance, in Sri Lanka we eat tuna in a specialised curry that's very black and dry, called Ambul Thiyal. It addresses a preservation issue because people would cook that curry for so long that there's no moisture left in it, so it can be kept for weeks. But at my restaurant, we cook it for seven minutes, using sashimi-grade tuna. Therefore it is soft, juicy, and succulent."
Chef Munidasa was in Singapore last month for the World Gourmet Summit 2017, where his crab dishes from Ministry of Crab were served at TungLok Signatures in Orchard Parade Hotel.
For him, cooking crab here meant he had come full circle, because Ministry of Crab was in fact somewhat inspired by how popular Sri Lankan crab is in Singapore.
"I once joked that Sri Lanka should be more appreciative of our natural ingredients, and thanked Singapore for making our crabs a branded product with things like chilli crab and black pepper crab. Then one of my friends asked me, why aren't you doing a crab restaurant? It made me realise we didn't even see our crabs that way. So now at my restaurant, crab is our sacred product."
So are there any crab-related myths he wishes to debunk? You bet. Starting with the notion that the most active crab in a live tank is the healthiest and best one to purchase. "If it's moving around, it means it's probably stressed out, so all the goodness is going
out of it. Contrary to popular belief, it's the one that's alive, but calm and not moving that's the strongest and fleshiest. Pick that one," he advises.