Colombo (CNN) — Crabs caught in Sri Lankan waters are so prized in Singapore's fine dining establishments that a single 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.
That's when chef Dharshan Munidasa, who grew up in Colombo, began thinking about how he could return one of Sri Lanka's most iconic exports back to the people who made it famous.
Munidasa doesn't necessarily have the same resume as your typical celebrity chef.
He didn't grow up being interested in food, he didn't go to culinary school, and he wasn't raised in an accepted foodie capital. But that's exactly what made him the right person to single-handedly change the way the wider world viewed Sri Lankan cooking.
Ministry of Crab's signature color is yellow, which is found everywhere from the walls to the coasters.
Courtesy of Ministry of Crab
The accidental chef
Munidasa was born in Tokyo and raised in Colombo by a Japanese mother and 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 first started cooking. He couldn't abide cafeteria food, so he figured it was time to learn to cook.
"It was not like the kid from Sri Lanka went to the US and missed his home-cooked food. It was just regular food that was not good in 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 about something here and how they cook this."
Through trial and error, plus obsessive documentation of what worked and what didn't, Munidasa went from cooking for survival to cooking for pleasure. And when he returned to Sri Lanka after getting his degree in computer engineering, he started thinking about cooking for a living.
First up was high-end Japanese restaurant Nihonbashi, which he opened in Colombo in 1995.
Thanks to strong diplomatic ties between the two countries, there was a small but active Japanese expat community in Sri Lanka, and they began patronizing Nihonbashi. The locals soon followed. If food were the Grammys, Munidasa wasn't trying to win Best New Artist -- he was aiming for a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Ministry of Crab opened in 2011. Both restaurants landed the first-ever Sri Lankan slots on the annual Asia's Best Restaurants list -- Nihonbashi in 2013 and MOC two years later -- putting the small country on the international foodie radar in a way it hadn't been before.
In 2021, MOC had one of its best showings ever, clocking in at number 29.
MOC is inside central Colombo's historic Old Dutch Hospital complex.
Courtesy of Ministry of Crab
A limited menu with unlimited flavors
Some restaurants, especially ones in crowded markets that are trying to stand out, rely on constant innovation to keep guests coming in.
There's always a hunt for the next big trend -- cronut, anyone? -- or a photogenic ingredient that seems more designed for social media buzz than flavor.
But the first thing anyone walking into Ministry of Crab notices is the menu -- it is small, tightly edited and entirely centered around one main ingredient. That ingredient is the Sri Lankan mud crab, also known as the lagoon crab. For a long time, these crabs were a staple of every Sri Lankan kitchen, but once they became more profitable to sell overseas than to keep at home they began disappearing from dining tables on the island.
For an indecisive diner who gets overwhelmed by too many choices, MOC is a dream.
You choose one size of crab based on what's available -- from the smallest size, the "half-kilo" at 500 grams all the way up to the coveted "Crabzilla" at 2 kg plus -- and decide which of six or so available preparations sounds best to you.
Options include a Singaporean-style chilli crab, black pepper crab and a "risotto-esque" baked crab that has to be ordered at least three hours in advance.
There are also one or two appetizers -- such as a crab salad served inside a fresh, partially scooped-out avocado -- and one dessert, a coconut creme brulee -- served inside a fresh coconut, as you might be noticing a theme here. And that's it.
With such a condensed menu, there's nowhere to hide. Crabs are as fresh as they can be, caught daily by fishermen Munidasa has built relationships with. The restaurant has a policy against never serving a crab that weighs less than 500 grams -- not just so there's more meat to work with, but because those smaller crabs are too young.
The taste of Sri Lanka
How do you put a life onto a plate? How do you distil a country and its people down to one single ingredient? Reclaiming Sri Lankan mud crabs for the people who farm and cultivate them is one way.
Following his successes, Munidasa has also become an ambassador for Sri Lankan food.
"I think there's a huge, huge, huge notion that Sri Lankan food is 90% Indian," he says.
"Our rices are different, how we cook is different. We eat everything. We eat beef, we eat fish, we eat pig, we eat chicken. Many people think Sri Lanka is 'India light.' There are certain 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 matter of three and a half hours."
Munidasa has also been able to take his show on the road. MOC now has outposts in Bangkok, Mumbai, Shanghai, Manila and the Maldives, all of which he oversees. He also organizes pop-ups around the world as a way to teach people about Sri Lankan food and the special flavors of Sri Lankan mud crabs.
Being the lone representative of his country on the Asia's 50 Best list comes with both pressures and privileges.
Despite the accolades, Munidasa is still working in a food world that is hugely Western-centric. In Sri Lanka, he says, nobody has heard of the Asia's 50 Best list or plans their summer holiday around traveling to a single restaurant.
And odds are high he will never win a Michelin star -- not because of lack of talent, but because Michelin has never covered Sri Lanka.
Yet in some ways, it's this lack of mainstream pedigree that has enabled Munidasa to seek praise from within. He hasn't sold licensing rights to his name to a giant conglomerate, and there's no pressure to create a line of branded products.
"If you always try to meet other people's expectations, you'll never grow. You'll never outdo yourself."