For more than 20 years, Dharshan Munidasa has been reinventing Colombo’s dining scene one culinary concept at a time, from Japanese fine dining to a celebration of Sri Lanka’s mud crab.
When Dharshan Munidasa left Sri Lanka to pursue a double degree in computer engineering and international relations at John Hopkins University in the US, he didn’t expect to embark on an all-new career as a chef. Unable to palate the meals served in the cafeteria, the young Dharshan cooked first for himself in his dorm, then for his fellow students, attracting others to the unique flavours of his Sri Lankan and Japanese heritage.
A year after his return to Colombo, he opened the first Japanese restaurant in Sri Lanka. Although Dharshan lacked any formal training in the kitchen, Nihonbashi became a must-eat destination, a status it retains today. Here, Japanese-inspired dishes are presented with finesse and Sri Lankan flair, from the curry leaf in tempura batter to Olive Oil Kake Tai Cha and the moreish bites of chicken grilled over charcoal in the open-air Yakitori Garden.
In the 23 years since opening Nihonbashi, Dharshan himself has been recognised as Sri Lanka’s preeminent chef and restaurateur, hosting his own TV show across Sri Lanka and Japan, Culinary Journeys with Dharshan, featuring on Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown documentary and creating an empire of restaurants in Colombo and Galle Fort. The best known of these is Ministry of Crab, which celebrated six years of championing Sri Lanka’s export-quality crustacean in December 2017. While Nihonbashi is ranked 45th on the 2018 Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list, Ministry of Crab sits at number 25.
“Ministry of Crab pop-up restaurants are sought-after gourmet events from London to Tokyo.”
In praise of crab
The restaurant’s premise is simple: to honour the best of Sri Lanka’s mud or lagoon crab with a fresh, no-freezer policy. With so many of the country’s finest crustaceans exported to Singapore (where it stars in the national dish, chilli crab), Dharshan seeks to restore crab to its rightful place within Sri Lankan cooking. This means keeping some of the finest specimens – fondly called crabzillas – on the island.
Ministry of Crab, however, is more than an ideology. Dharshan and his fellow co-owners, cricketing legends Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, see the restaurant as a celebration of Sri Lankan heritage and the island’s produce. Within the surrounds of the 400-year-old Dutch Hospital shopping precinct, diners read ‘The Constitution’ – Article V. states that “digging in with your hands is not frowned upon” – as they embark on a culinary journey.
Kaema Sutra, Dharshan’s third restaurant, was created in partnership with Bollywood actor Jacqueline Fernandez, and moved to the fourth floor of the new Shangri-La Hotel in Colombo in December. The setting is elegant, weaving between the simplicity of Japanese interior designer, Ryoichi Niwata, and Sri Lankan accents. The view is also a drawcard thanks to the open-air terrace overlooking the Indian Ocean. This is the place to try the local staple, hoppers. These bowl-shaped pancakes are reimagined with gourmet flair, such as the savoury squid ink ‘Black Hopper’ or the signature ‘What the Hopper’ dessert with whipped curd, strawberries and treacle.
Such culinary innovation has led Dharshan to be recognised far beyond Sri Lanka’s shores. His work in Japanese culinary culture saw him awarded The Minister’s Award for Overseas Promotion of Japanese Food by the Japanese Government in 2014. Dharshan was also appointed a “Cool Japan” Ambassador by the Japanese Government.
Elsewhere, Ministry of Crab pop-up restaurants are sought-after gourmet events, with a three-day London appearance selling out before the first night. Dharshan also hosted pop-ups in 2018 in Singapore and Tokyo to delight diners with an authentic taste of Sri Lanka.