There is no better person to talk crabs than Dharshan Munidasa the man behind the legendary restaurant chain Ministry of Crab. In a free-flowing chat, the celebrated chef-restaurateur with Japanese-Sri Lankan roots talks about all things crabs, his ingredient-led approach to cooking, and a great crab biryani on the anvil.
Munidasa was in Mumbai recently for the third anniversary of Ministry of Crab’s outpost that he co-owns with cricketers Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara. MOC was brought down to India by Ramit Mittal of Gourmet Investments Private Ltd. Excerpts from that interview:
1. Your mixed heritage (Japanese mother and Sri Lankan father) gave you enviable access to both cultures. Tell us what it was like growing up?
I am privileged to have two cultures behind me. I had two sets of aunts - one set from Sri Lanka and the other from Japan making two different kinds of foods. Those were my early introductions to food. Also living in Sri Lanka meant fishing every Sunday and sashimi on the boat. Not many countries have these kinds of opportunities. Once when I was visiting Japan and my grandmother have me some pocket money. I remember spending it all on live prawns, one of my favourite dishes.
2. Is it true that one of the main reasons for you to start cooking early in life was the terrible food at the dorm while studying in the US?
It wasn’t food. It was feed. I was cooking as early as 12 years of age. But I took it up seriously when I moved to the US as a student. I was studying computer engineering at the John Hopkins University. The food was so bad at the dorm that I had no option but to cook for myself. That was the beginning. But I have always been the person who overate and ate the most expensive thing on the menu. I used to get shouted at by my father for it. But food has always been very important for me.
3. What are your favourite foods?
It depends on where I am. If I am in Japan, it’s ramen- the soul food of Japan. But when I am in Sri Lanka it's kotthu (a street food made of chopped up paratha, spices and meat).
4. Ministry of Crab (MOC) is a single-dish restaurant. What are the challenges of this format?
I get asked that question a lot. But if you go to Japan many restaurants are single dishes. It could be a restaurant serving only tempura or only ramen. When you do that you are better at what you do since you have no distractions. You are not trying to serve everybody but only people who like that one particular dish. Your supply chain also becomes stronger because you are not having things on the menu just for the sake of having them. Business wise we have changed how a single ingredient restaurant is viewed. Eventually, all these things are passion-driven. A good restaurant should create food and experiences that people don’t forget. That’s really hard.
5. What would be your recommendation for someone dining at MOC for the first time?
Try our signature dishes - Garlic Chili Freshwater Prawns with kade bread (Sri Lankan woodfire bread) and Pepper Crab. How we cook these dishes is unique to us. We make ‘dashi’ (stock) out of black pepper which is crushed on a traditional miris gala (grinding stone).
6. Good fresh crabs are important to your operations. Tell us where you get those huge crabs from?
MOC is a no-freeze restaurant. Freezers are banned from our restaurants and that’s the reason we don’t serve any ice cream here. We only use fresh, live crabs. In the three years that we have been in India, we have strengthened our supply chain and fixed all the kinks in trying to get good crabs. Now we get amazing mud crabs flown in from Chennai five times a week. These crabs are not farmed but caught in the wild. For us, it’s not just the size or the great quality. They have to be aesthetic as well.
7. What do you mean by aesthetic crabs?
Yes aesthetic. I am very particular that the front two claws have to be perfectly intact (unbroken) and of the same size. When someone is paying a USD100 for a crab it’s not fair that he gets a lesser crab. Also when one claw is smaller or bigger than the other it cannot be exported and the price drops by 50 percent. It’s ok when you cook a couple of small crabs in curry and a claw is missing. But here at MOC, we cook one crab and plate one crab at a time. Each claw can be pulled apart and eaten individually. So the experience is magnificent.
8. What are the challenges in sourcing great crabs?
Weather is a major challenge. In Sri Lanka crab supply drops drastically from May up to the first week of July. For the last 10 years, June has been a terrible month for MOC not because we don’t have enough guests but because we don’t have enough crabs. When it’s too hot they go down deeper and stay there. When there is too much rain the lagoon expands in size. So the same number of crabs are now spread over a larger area and become that much more difficult to source.
9. How do you explain this fascination for crustaceans?
I think it’s simply the taste. Crabs have a unique flavour. But I feel lobster is extremely overrated. Unless it’s a live lobster from the sea and you make sashimi. Then it’s an exotic and a unique experience. But did you know that crustaceans started out at the low end of the dining menu? Lobsters were known as the poor man's meal because the overabundance of these guys made it easy for people with no money to get their protein. In fact, lobsters were fed to prisoners, apprentices and slaves in the United States till the early 1900s.
10. MOC has been on Asia’s 50 Best for eight consecutive times and you are the only restaurateur with two restaurants (Ministry of Crab and Nihonbashi) on the list. What’s the secret?
Maybe it’s consistency and focus on ingredients. I believe good food requires good ingredients. That’s a great starting point. We only serve high-quality live crabs. Even the oysters, prawns and clams come live on ice. You can’t match the flavour and texture of these things with frozen products. That level of dedication to ingredients is not very common. We have created something original, something that lingers in people’s minds long after the meal is over. That’s what I believe in - keep it simple and original and great things can happen. I never went to a culinary school or worked at a hotel or as a chef. Whatever I know is through my own curiosity, my own hunger to eat and to learn. I wish more people took that route. The hotel route or the culinary school route is not necessarily the best.
11. Are you looking at expanding?
Indian guests are one of our biggest consumers in Sri Lanka. So it’s only logical that we expand. Mumbai was the starting point for us. We had a pop-up in Bengalururecently and the response was amazing. Pop-ups give us a good idea of the city and how people react to the produce we put in front of them. Choosing a location will also be guided by sourcing the crabs as we are an ingredient-led restaurant. So our next destination could be Delhi or Bangalore or somewhere else. That’s our master franchise Ramit Mittal’s call on where we go next. Mumbai will always be the grandest and the best.
12. Cooking crabs at home can be very overwhelming. Do you have some tips?
Just come here. There is a difference between what restaurants do and what you can make at home. It’s very difficult to cook a big crab at home. The first and foremost thing is the quality of the crab. If you don’t get that right 90 percent of the dish is going to be different. It’s also hard to clean a crab. Getting rid of the lungs and other things that you won’t cook is not easy. It’s going to smell. There is a huge difference in the taste of what we as professionals cook and what is cooked at home. At MOC, we even ask you if you want a male or a female crab.
13. Do male crabs taste different from female crabs?
Slightly. The female crabs are sweeter. The male crabs have bigger claws and could give you a different taste and experience.
14. Is there a way to differentiate a good crab from a bad one?
There is no such thing as fresh crab. It’s either alive or dead. Dead crabs are not worth cooking. You can tell a good crab by touching it. Turn the crab over and check the underbelly. It needs to be as hard as a rock.
15. What will be the next big thing at MOC Mumbai?
Being home during the lockdown gave me a lot of time to experiment and do something new. That’s when I actually came up with the idea of a crab biryani. We will be introducing the crab biryani very soon to Mumbai. The rice and the crab will be cooked together just like in a biryani. The most challenging aspect was using the crab to flavour the rice. In a mutton biryani, you can use the mutton stock or the mutton broth. But mud crabs have a very subtle flavour. The MOC crab biryani will be cooked in an earthen pot and served with crab bisque.
16. We always see you in a white shirt and a black apron. Don’t you get bored?
Life is easy when you wake up and don’t have to decide on what to wear. You have only one thing to choose. All our restaurants have black aprons and I own quite a few of them in. Interestingly the first apron I ever bought was when I was a student in Japan. I wanted a black one but the store only had one with a Mickey Mouse on it. I couldn’t help but wear it inside out!