Sri Lankan Cuisine Meets Japanese Perfection at Self-Taught Master Chef Dharshan Munidasa’s Kitchen
FATE WORKS in mysterious ways. Had Sri Lankan super chef Dharshan Munidasa‘s father not died six months before he graduated from Johns Hopkins University with a double degree in Computer Engineering and International Relations in 1994, he would have taken up the corporate job that awaited him in Tokyo, his birthplace, and perhaps never opened Nihonbashi, the landmark Japanese restaurant near Colombo’s Galle Face Hotel that has made him one of Asia’s most celebrated chefs.
The procession of ironies doesn’t stop here. Munidasa never trained to become a chef. He learnt to become one during his days at Johns Hopkins. “It was hunger that drove me to start cooking,” Munidasa, the only chef in the continent with two restaurants on Asia’s Top 50 list, said during a stopover in New Delhi this past week for a Sri Lankan food promotion at the ITC Maurya. “I can’t eat bad food and that’s all they served in the cafeteria,” he added as I salivated at the thought of digging Munidasa’s famous egg hoppers (he uses two eggs, instead of one that has traditionally gone into making this dish) and masala crabs.
By his senior year, Munidasa’s dormitory room had become the go-to ‘Japanese restaurant’ of his college mates. The menu consisted of home-style Japanese food he had picked up from his Japanese mother and her sisters, and as Munidasa started attracting fellow students to his ‘restaurant’, he mastered a restaurateur’s skills and he only accepted ingredients as payment for the hard work he put in to make everyone happy. “Nothing gives me greater joy than seeing people happy after having a meal cooked by me,” he said with bright eyes and radiating a warm smile, sipping a flute of Chandon.
Nihonbashi and subsequently, Ministry of Crab, with its all-crab menu (including the island nation’s famous lagoon crab) and the celebrity quotient provided by Sri Lanka’s ace cricketers Mahela Jayewardene and Kumar Sangakkara, are responsible for Munidasa’s international reputation. It is his new avatar as chef-owner of Kaema Sutra (kaema is the Sinhalese word for ‘food’) — his business partner is Sri Lanka’sBollywood export, Jacqueline Fernandez — that brought Munidasa to New Delhi. From being the exponent of Japanese cuisine in his country, most recently honoured by the Japanese government for his efforts, he has become a man with a mission to change the way the world views Sri Lankan cuisine.
Munidasa, who could pass off as an avuncular professor with his steel-rimmed glasses, salt-and-pepper goatee and love for conversation, describes his oeuvre as Modern Sri Lankan Cuisine — inspired as much by the island nation’s culinary traditions as by the Japanese obsession with perfection. The chef, in fact, has not only spent a little fortune to procure Japanese knives, but also invested in a good amount of Sri Lankan tea to loosen up the Japanese masters and make them part with their knowledge of the art of sharpening knives. A Japanese sushi and sashimi chef, it is said, is as good as the blade of his knife.
Munidasa is as fanatical about respect for ingredients. He’s famous for picking up what are known as Tokyo-grade tuna, headed for the Tsukiji fish market, before the day’s catch can be airlifted to the Japanese capital. It is the Japanese passion for perfection and respect for ingredients that he now wishes to bring to the table at what he proudly declares as his “no freezer” restaurant, where the choice could range from a sashimi-grade tuna curry cooked in seven minutes to goat meat (he insists on using the term mutton, as it has been used classically , only for sheep meat) slow-cooked in a Le Creuset pot for more than two hours.
Located at Colombo’s Independence Arcade, a building restored by the Sri Lankan government from an old colonial-era mental asylum, the restaurant’s famous hoppers “nearly toppled” the ruling dispensation, Munidasa narrates with a chuckle. On the streets, a hopper would cost SLRs 20, but at Kaema Sutra, they come for SLRs 200. The opposition, as a result, skewered the government for spending a hefty amount of taxpayers’ money only to let a posh restaurant come up.
With his innate sense of humour, Munidasa doesn’t find it hard to laugh off controversies and stay focused on his mission. Behind that gentle exterior lies a steely determination.