My tryst with Ministry of Crab goes all the way back to 2013 on my first visit to Sri Lanka. How could one not visit the legendary restaurant founded by chef Dharshan Munidasa and Sri Lankan cricketers Mahela Jayawardena and Kumar Sangakkara! I clearly remember gorging on the Garlic Chilli crab, cooked in beautiful Sri Lankan flavours, with my family, and I will never forget how we swept the plate clean and went back to our hotel feeling truly happy and satisfied.
When the restaurant made its way to India three years ago, you can only imagine my excitement. After all, I am an avid seafood lover, and particularly fond of crabs. You see my star sign’s symbol is also that of a crab. So when I headed to the Mumbai restaurant, I placed an order for the same Garlic Chilli crab and all those memories from Sri Lanka came rushing back. The taste was very close to what I ate nine years ago. And this is a mark of a good restaurant–to be able to maintain ingredients and flavours over time and geography.
As the iconic seafood restaurant completes three years in the city, I get into a crusty conversation with chef Dharshan.
ELLE: Congratulations on the third anniversary of the Ministry of Crab in Mumbai! Tell us what drew you towards seafood and the crustacean, in particular?
Dharshan Munidasa (DM): Being half Japanese and half Sri Lankan, fishing was part of my life growing up. Fishing is very easily accessible in Sri Lanka and my mother would buy live crabs for our home. It was always a delight to be in touch with such a great ingredient. Crabs have always been a culinary gem of Sri Lanka, appreciated in Singapore since the ’80s. In my TV show (Culinary Journeys with Dharshan) I had showcased these majestic crabs and had dedicated an entire episode to them. When that episode aired, my friends caught on to the idea and asked why I don’t start a crab restaurant. And that’s how Ministry Of Crab began.
ELLE: What made you open the Ministry of Crab with Mahela Jayawardena and Kumar Sangakkara?
DM: Kumar and Mahela have always loved the food at Nihonbashi (Dharshan’s first venture in Sri Lanka) and had been dining there for years before we became friends. When the crab restaurant idea came up I asked them if they would like to be a part of it and they jumped at the idea, which led us to start this fun project together. Today we have 7 restaurants around the world in Colombo, Shanghai, Chengdu, Manila, Mumbai, Maldives, and Bangkok.
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ELLE: You have roots in Japan and Sri Lanka. How do you bring both worlds together through your food?
DM: Japanese cuisine is a philosophy that pays a lot of respect to ingredients. How we find it, treat it, and eventually plate ingredients, is at the core of this philosophy. At Ministry of Crab we handle live seafood and how we respect crab & prawns from the time of arrival to the point of plating is something very unique. Our philosophy, our terminology and even the kitchen utensils are all from Japanese kitchens, even the knives are wabocho (traditional Japanese knives). The way we plate the crab is inspired by the Japanese tea ceremony, where every part of the crab is destined to one location on the plate. Using very good ingredients and cooking very simply is the core of Japanese cuisine, that shines through at Ministry of Crab. We make ‘Dashi’ (stock) out of black pepper and dry red chili. That act alone of making the stock out of these spices is a Japanese method never applied in the spice world.
ELLE: What are some of the must-try dishes at Ministry of Crab Mumbai?
DM: Our signature dishes are our Mud Crabs and Freshwater Prawns. Garlic Chili freshwater prawns with kade bread (Sri Lankan wood fire bread) and Pepper crab are a must-try. How we cook these dishes is unique to us with regard to the quality of ingredients we use and the Japanese culinary philosophies we employ.
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ELLE: How does the team in Mumbai source fresh seafood? Do you think the concept of sea-to-table, like farm-to-table, is having a moment?
DM: Ministry of Crab Mumbai is a formidable team that defied all odds to find mud crabs and freshwater prawns that are required for my dishes. Ingredients are always paramount and I believe the best crabs of India should be enjoyed in India and not get exported. To do this we found a network of suppliers from Chennai. Our crabs are flown in from Chennai to Mumbai almost every other day and that’s how we ensure that we only serve the best crabs. The concept of sea-to-table is the only way you can serve fresh catch. We have live seafood and a no-freezer policy to ensure that we serve our guests only the best quality crab.
ELLE: As a seafood brand, how do you contribute towards making the ocean sustainable, given the fact that sourcing fresh catch is an everyday activity to run the business?
DM: Our crab cannot be farmed. The only way we can ensure the sustainability of the product is to lobby with government authorities to bring in legislation as to what should and shouldn’t be caught. We have started a dialogue with authorities to launch initiatives to ban fishing, trading, and export of crabs below 300gms. Although 300gms crab is quite small, such crabs do get caught and exported, but by lobbying with authorities we are trying to keep the crab population robust and dynamic.
ELLE: What are your future plans as a chef and restaurateur?
DM: Future plan is to retire (laughs). We are present in so many countries and cities, and I feel lucky to be able to travel to these new cities and meet the teams locally, enjoy local food and watch the dishes I created being enjoyed around the world. So we will continue venturing into many new cities and hope to continue our culinary journey.