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Ministry of Crab: The Story of Sri Lanka’s Most Famous Restaurant

Colombo (CNN) – Crabs caught in Sri Lankan waters are so prized in Singapore dining establishments that one can sell for hundreds of dollars. But there was one place where these crabs weren’t the hottest dish on the menu: Sri Lanka.

It was then that Chef Dharshan Munidasa, who grew up in Colombo, began to think about how he could make one of Sri Lanka’s most iconic exports to the people who made it famous.

Munidasa doesn’t necessarily have the same CV as your celebrity chef.

He didn’t grow up interested in food, he didn’t go to cooking school, and he wasn’t raised in an accepted gastronomic capital. But that’s exactly what made him the perfect person to single-handedly change the way the whole world viewed Sri Lankan cuisine.

Ministry of Crab’s signature color is yellow, which can be found everywhere from walls to coasters.

Courtesy of the Ministry of Crab

The accidental leader

Munidasa was born in Tokyo and raised in Colombo by a Japanese mother and a Sri Lankan father. But it wasn’t until he went to the United States in the 1990s to study at Johns Hopkins University that he started cooking. He couldn’t stand the cafeteria food, so he thought it was time to learn to cook.

“It wasn’t like the kid from Sri Lanka was going to the States and missing out on his homemade food. It was just regular food that wasn’t good in the dorms, ”he says. “There was no WhatsApp, or Google, or YouTube, or anything like that. I had to physically call people, my aunts in Japan, my mom, my grandmother, to ask them something here and how they were cooking that. ”

Through trial and error, as well as obsessively documenting what worked and what didn’t, Munidasa went from cooking for survival to cooking for fun. And when he returned to Sri Lanka after graduating in Computer Engineering, he started thinking about cooking for a living.

First, the upscale Japanese restaurant Nihonbashi, which he opened in Colombo in 1995.

Thanks to strong diplomatic relations between the two countries, there was a small but active community of Japanese expatriates in Sri Lanka, and they started dating Nihonbashi. The inhabitants quickly followed. If the food was at the Grammys, Munidasa wasn’t trying to win the Best New Artist award – he was aiming for a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Ministry of Crab opened in 2011. The two restaurants landed the first Sri Lankan slots on Asia’s annual list of best restaurants – Nihonbashi in 2013 and MOC two years later – putting the small country on the international food radar in a way it didn’t have. not been before.

In 2021, MOC had one of its best performances of all time, with the 29th place.
Ministry of Crab: The Story of Sri Lanka’s Most Famous Restaurant

MOC is located inside the historic Old Dutch Hospital complex in central Colombo.

Courtesy of the Ministry of Crab

A limited menu with unlimited flavors

Some restaurants, especially those located in crowded markets trying to differentiate themselves, rely on constant innovation to keep customers coming back.

There’s always a hunt for the next big trend – cronut, anyone? – or a photogenic ingredient that seems more geared towards social media buzz than flavor.

But the first thing anyone who walks into the Ministry of Crab notices is the menu – it’s small, tightly edited, and all about one main ingredient. This ingredient is Sri Lankan mud crab, also known as lagoon crab. For a long time, these crabs were a staple of all Sri Lankan cuisines, but once they became more profitable to sell abroad than to stay at home, they began to disappear from dining tables. from the island.

For an indecisive diner that’s overwhelmed by too many choices, MOC is a dream.

You pick a size of crab based on what’s available – from the smallest size, the “half kilo” at 500 grams to the highly coveted “Crabzilla” at 2kg and over – and decide which of the six or the more available the preparations suit you the better.

Options include a Singaporean-style chili crab, black pepper crab, and a baked “risotto-esque” crab that must be ordered at least three hours in advance.

There are also an appetizer or two – like a crab salad served in a partially hollowed fresh avocado – and a dessert, a coconut creme brulee – served in a fresh coconut, as you might notice a theme here. And that’s all.

With such a condensed menu, there is nowhere to hide. The crabs are as fresh as they get, caught daily by the fishermen with whom Munidasa has established relationships. The restaurant has a policy of never serving a crab weighing less than 500 grams – not only so that there is more meat to work with, but because these little crabs are too young.

The taste of Sri Lanka

How to put a life on a plate? How to sum up a country and its people in a single ingredient? Collecting Sri Lankan mud crabs for the people who grow and cultivate them is one solution.

Following his successes, Munidasa also became an ambassador of Sri Lankan cuisine.

“I think there’s a huge, huge, huge notion that Sri Lankan food is 90% Indian,” he says.

“Our rice is different, the way we cook is different. We eat everything. We eat beef, we eat fish, we eat pork, we eat chicken. Many people think of Sri Lanka as “light India”. There are some similarities, yes. But again, it’s different because the distances are so small. You can go from 12 degrees in the hills to 32 degrees on the beach in three and a half hours. ”

Munidasa was also able to take her show on the road. MOC now has outposts in Bangkok, Mumbai, Shanghai, Manila and the Maldives, which it all oversees. It also runs pop-ups around the world to teach people about Sri Lankan food and the special flavors of Sri Lankan mud crabs.

Being the only representative of your country on the Top 50 in Asia list comes with both pressures and privileges.

Despite the praise, Munidasa still works in a food world that is extremely Western-centric. In Sri Lanka, he says, no one has heard of the Top 50 in Asia list or planning their summer vacation by traveling to just one restaurant.

And the odds are high that he will never win a Michelin star – not for lack of talent, but because Michelin has never covered Sri Lanka.

Yet, in some ways, it’s this lack of traditional pedigree that has allowed Munidasa to seek praise from within. He hasn’t sold the license rights of his name to a giant conglomerate, and there is no pressure to create a branded product line.

“If you always try to meet the expectations of others, you will never grow. You will never surpass yourself.”


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