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The chef side story: Why Dharshan Munidasa is the greatest seafood chef in Asia

How the Sri Lankan chef goes to any lengths to acquire the perfect fish for his diners

brunch Updated: Jun 01, 2019 23:33 IST
Ananya Ghosh
Ananya Ghosh
Hindustan Times
Dharshan Munidasa,Sri Lankan chef,restaurateur
HT Brunch took Dharshan Munidasa to Sassoon Docks in Mumbai, where he seems to feel at home; Make-up and hair: Ashish Moitra (Aalok Soni)

It is 6.30am – peak hour at one of the busiest and largest wholesale fish markets and auction centres in Mumbai. Overflowing with fresh blood and steeped with a stiff stench, it’s not a place for the faint-hearted. But dressed in his chef’s whites, world-famous Sri Lankan chef and restaurateur Dharshan Munidasa is right at home. He wanders about, clicking pictures, checking out the tuna and Bombay ducks and baby sharks. It takes us some time to catch hold of him for the shoot.

“This is the kind of place I love! The worst fish markets are the ones in Hong Kong and Singapore where you have dead fish freezing in white-tiled AC rooms,” he smiles.

“The variety of fish here is mind-boggling! But sadly, the quality is not that good. You can have the freshest catch, but how we bring it to the shore dictates its quality. How you keep it in the trawlers, transport it to the markets, handle it, everything has an impact,” explains Munidasa, who is known for his no-freeze policy.

For the love of nature

Born in Tokyo, Japan, to a Sri Lankan father, Dr Milton Munidasa, and Japanese mother, Nobuko Munidasa, Munidasa’s food ethos is shaped by Japanese cuisine as is his obsession with fresh ingredients.

“For me, ingredients are everything,” he says. “It’s a very Japanese way of looking at food. And it’s not just seafood. Even if you are making a dish with eggs, the quality and colour of the egg and even the height of the yolk will dictate the quality of the dish. We all know how important fresh ingredients are. It’s really simple. But simplicity is sometimes the most difficult thing to control. My style of cooking and eating is to bring the core ingredients to the fore.”

Up, close, personal

Though Japanese cuisine made him fall in love with fresh ingredients, it was when he moved to Sri Lanka while still a child that Munidasa’s love turned into passion.

For Munidasa food is sensual affair and how the ingredient looks and feels are also of utmost importance ( Aalok Soni )

“Japan is known for celebrating its love for nature through art, food, Ikebana, bonsai, everything. And then you put such people in a jungle country like Sri Lanka, where nature was always within five-minute distance. It was like living inside an amusement park! Back in Tokyo, going fishing would be a meticulously-planned annual affair. But in Sri Lanka, it was just a quick bicycle ride away. My brother and I would often go fishing and then slice the fresh catch with our Swiss knives and eat them!”

Avoiding the melting pot

Munidasa is the founder of three flagship restaurants: Nihonbashi, a restaurant serving authentic Japanese food, which has the distinction of being the first Sri Lankan restaurant to have ever made it to Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants List, The Ministry of Crab, a restaurant that takes pride in serving fresh export quality Sri Lankan lagoon crabs and has been ranked in Asia’s top 50 restaurant list for the fifth consecutive year in 2019, and Kaema Sutra – the newest addition that specialises in contemporary Sri Lankan cuisine. But what is interesting is that Munidasa has never attempted to merge Japanese cuisine with Sri Lankan. “People often ask me if I am more Japanese or more Sinhalese. Well, I am equally both! I even dream in two languages. I have two different palates and that is why one of my restaurants serves authentic Japanese and the other two are true to their Sri Lankan roots. Fusion food is about 30 years old, and it died 15 years back. I think the restaurant industry in India needs to wake up to this reality!

Accidental chef

It might come as a surprise that Munidasa is not a trained chef. In fact, he planned to graduate from Johns Hopkins University, USA, with a double degree in computer engineering and international relations. But he lost his father just before his final exams and had to come back to be with his family. His father had long toyed with the idea of opening a Japanese restaurant and Munidasa decided to give it a go. But ask him what brought him to this profession and he laughs, “Hunger! I can’t eat bad food!”

If crab be the food of love

For Munidasa, the way food is served is also important. His Ministry of Crab has plates specially designed to serve crabs. “It has nine ridges, exactly the same as that on a crab!” he quips.

“Aesthetics play a huge role in Japanese cuisine. If today chefs across the world are focusing on Instagrammable food, Japan’s been doing it for the past 300 years!” says the chef.

Chef Munidasa with (right) chef Jerry Thomas, culinary head at The Ministry of Crab, Mumbai ( Aalok Soni )

At the recently-opened Ministry Of Crab in Mumbai, the crabs weigh between half kg and two kgs. “In other restaurants you’ll mostly have three bodies and five claws put in a pot and cooked. There’s no beauty or aesthetics in that. Also, it is a very different feeling when you are holding a big crab. The sensation of eating one is also different,” he says.

Clawing for perfection

He points out that in countries like Sri Lanka and India, premium quality crabs are all exported. “What the restaurants end up buying are export rejects, which would have uneven claws or may be even a claw missing. But for me, it is important to get hold of perfect crabs for my dishes. So we started getting those in Sri Lanka by paying the export rate. And we are following the same principle in India. Still, it’s not easy. Given the fact that crabs are cannibalistic in nature, it is rather difficult to get fully-grown crabs. The trick is to build that kind of trust with the sources.”

Ask him why he is obsessed with crabs with perfect claws, and he says: “Because if you don’t care about the ingredients and how they look on the plate, you are not a chef but a cook.”

And it’s not just perfectly symmetrical claws he is after, but also the pedigree. Munidasa has spent months ensuring they source best crabs from both coasts of India. “We are using mud crabs which are wild-caught. Those taste better,” he smiles.

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From HT Brunch, June 2, 2019

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First Published: Jun 01, 2019 22:49 IST