One of the country’s pre-eminent chefs talks to us about its cuisine, being the Minister of Crab and how getting down and dirty eating crabs can be part of a fine dining experience
Despite being one of the luminaries of the Colombo dining scene, Dharshan Munidasa doesn’t cook for adulation or plaudits. He doesn’t mind being called an autocrat in the kitchen, saying “there’s nothing democratic about a kitchen", along with some other unpublishable things, he tells us.
Oddly enough, the title of celebrity chef sits uncomfortably with him. “I don’t think I’m a celebrity chef. People say that about me, but that was never my ambition. It’s like the hype around my restaurants, it’s not something I created. I take my craft overseas, I show people what we have… and the celebrity is a by-product," he muses.
Whether or not the label is welcome, it’s difficult to argue with the fact Munidasa is famous. Two of his restaurants — Nihonbashi and Ministry of Crab — feature on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list, and the chef, who has Sri Lankan/Japanese heritage also owns Kaema Sutra and The Tuna and The Crab in Colombo.
He’s also the proud owner of a brand-new BMW X5 plug-in hybrid, in spite of Sri Lanka having minimal electric car charging infrastructure. Perhaps that’s just another aspect of his gung-ho spirit — Munidasa plans to one day have solar panels powering EV charging stations outside his restaurants… and perhaps also a BMW i3 to zip around between his eateries.
In town earlier this month to helm a Ministry of Crab pop-up at Shangri-La Hotel Singapore, we caught up with him over lunch to quiz him on life, the universe and everything.
How has the fine dining scene changed in the time since you started Nihonbashi in 1995?
I suppose in this part of the world, fine dining has always taken references from the West. Tablecloths, napkins, silverware… those were the notions of fine dining. Our food is sometimes very difficult to plate in that context, but it’s in no way unsuited for fine dining. The biggest change is consumers’ knowledge. Twenty years ago, when I was in college in the US, Americans knew only two kinds of fish. The Japanese knew a lot more than that. But in general, people all over the world are getting more educated. They now know what fish they’re eating, where it comes from, and that knowledge is changing the way we dine.
With information being so readily available, do you think it’s harder to impress people now?
The notion of taste is now completely different. People are now eating with their minds instead of their palates. They need to know everything, but sometimes, it’s better to just close your eyes and eat it. If you like it, great. Let the sensation be what it’s supposed to be.
How difficult is it to get crabs for Ministry of Crab, since so much of it is exported out of Sri Lanka and you don’t have freezers there to store it?
The catch per day is finite and there’s nothing you can do to change that. For us, it’s a matter of getting the best ones, and what we get is what we get. No matter the demand, if we can’t get it, we can’t get it.
That obviously affects business doesn’t it?
That’s what happens when your restaurant relies so heavily on one ingredient. One of my friends once told me Ministry of Crab has a very weak business model. I then said, “who called it a business?"
And what is the view of eating crabs in Sri Lanka?
When I was younger, I remember I used to buy crabs by just walking around the market. But little by little, the export market, especially to Singapore got stronger, so crabs gradually disappeared from the local market. We’re the first restaurant in Sri Lanka willing to pay high export prices and sell crabs back to Sri Lankans.
Basically, Sri Lankans got priced out of the market for goods they were producing locally?
It happens with tuna in Australia as well. In Boston, too. You have game fishermen catching 500-pound tuna and there are Japanese buyers waiting on the docks for them with cash and buying it off them. Nobody knew what the value of it was then. Now in New York, locally caught tuna doesn’t exist. The small quantities caught locally are exported.
Do you think that’s a shame? That local produce cannot be bought and enjoyed by locals?
I recorded a TV show once, about eating crabs in Sri Lanka and Singapore. All I said was, “Singapore made our crabs famous, it’s high time we started appreciating it as well." That’s when one of my friends who was watching the show told me to open up a crab restaurant.
Was that a big risk setting up a crab restaurant in Sri Lanka?
It was untested, uncharted. Nobody has ever done a crab restaurant here.
And some might say that’s a huge risk in itself.
There are some people who tell me I should bring it to India, for instance. But at the same time, they tell me the menu is too focused on crabs. I tell them, “Thank you very much, but I’m not here to satisfy you". This is our restaurant, the concept works and it’s caught the world’s attention. The notion of a restaurant in Sri Lanka or India is, it needs to serve customers slavishly. The notion of a sushi restaurant is you’re coming to enjoy our cuisine. I’m stuck between those two cultures. In South Asia, we still have that barrier, that restaurants are democracies and you need to make everything the patron asks.
Is that not like an autocracy?
Oh yes, totally. There’s nothing democratic about a kitchen.