As far back as 40 years ago Sri Lanka began exporting crab to Singapore. Home to mud crab also known as lagoon crab, these species could be kept out of water and were exported in cane baskets on Jetliners to Singapore. Gradually the volume at local markets was fast disappearing and the remainder was small in size and lacklustre.
When purchasing crab for his Japanese specialty restaurant, Nihonbashi, Dharshan would venture out to the Pettah fish market – at the time – amidst the busiest market places in the business district. “Those sellers taught me how to grade and select meatier crabs and these are lessons that culinary schools or hotels schools will never teach,” he says of the street smarts he gained through this experience.
Following an episode featuring crabs on his TV show, his second specialty restaurant found footing, on a friend’s suggestion. And Ministry of Crab, four years on is today a flourishing restaurant that welcomes guests from all over the world looking for that special crab dish to sink into. Preserving taste and emphasizing the main ingredients so that they take centre stage are the food principles that have found their way from Dharshan’s Japanese roots to the kitchen.
This is no less true for his crab dishes prepared from the freshest crab preferably keeping the flavour as unadulterated as possible. “Crab cannot be frozen and they need to be kept fresh as the meat breaks down easily. We go through about 100 kilos of crab a day!” And the secret to the superior taste of these Sri Lankan crab preparations is that the fresh crabs are not stored in salt water that would affect its flavour. Another tip is to cook crab in its shell, which Dharshan says “makes all the difference, as the shell brings out the flavour.”
Among the host of crab preparations, there are two inventive dishes in particular that are vying for the top spot: the Garlic Chilli Crab and Pepper Crab. The Garlic Chilli Crab bears subtle Italian and Japanese influences with Olive Oil and Soy Sauce used as elements to bring out the flavour of crab. Served with kade paan or local wood fired oven bread, toasted on hot charcoal, the Olive Oil and Soy Sauce base becomes a deliciously satisfying dip for the bread. The Garlic Chilli Crab is a step ahead in its popularity favoured even by Dharshan as the crab flavour is highlighted in the dish.
The Pepper Crab, Dharshan views as a ‘logically Sri Lankan dish’. Back in the day when chilli of any kind was not to be found in Asia, the spice of the island was black pepper. Along with the freshwater crab sourced from the islands lagoons and mangroves the Pepper Crab Dish turned out to be authentically Sri Lankan in the making. For this dish a stock is prepared with water and reduced until the intensity of the pepper is brought out and is then used to flavour the crab.
For both dishes the fresh crab is prepared in a wok till the green tinged shell is cooked to a bright orange colour. Be it chilli garlic or pepper crab, served with the simple yet utterly complementary kade paan, the synergy of flavours and textures offer diners an experience worthy of a highly coveted ingredient. So string on an apron, roll up those sleeves and crab on!
Ministry of Crab: Dutch Hospital Shopping Precinct, Colombo; 011 234 2722; Opening Hours: 6pm–10.30pm Mon to Sun, noon–3.30pm, 6pm–10.30pm and Poya closed.
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