String Hoppers and Giant Crabs: A Tête-à-tête With Chef Dharshan Munidasa
It’s one of those balmy Colombo evenings, perfectly complemented by one of those mesmerising ‘Ceylonese’ sunsets. Many will agree that the best place to enjoy a sunset here is along its most iconic waterfront stretch — Galle Face Green. I find myself enjoying a sundowner, looking out at the Indian Ocean from the sprawling oceanfront terrace of the Shangri-La Hotel Colombo. Chef Dharshan Munidasa shows up for our meeting bang on time. Soon after, he ushers me into Kaema Sutra, his brand-new restaurant. The paint has barely dried up here — the restaurant is only three days old — and diners are pouring in from all parts of the world. “The restaurant has opened to an overwhelming response. We have had a full house every night and there’s a waiting list for the next month or so,” Munidasa tells me. I admire the massive wall art installation comprising colourful traditional Sri Lankan masks, arranged with geometric precision, as early diners begin to pour in. This restaurant opening is laden with symbolism — the new Kaema Sutra is the flagship restaurant of the Shangri-La Hotel Colombo, the biggest and most talked-about luxury opening in the Sri Lankan capital in over a decade, situated on the iconic sea-facing promenade. This symbolises a new age in the journey of this country, with its burgeoning economy, and quick recovery after three decades of civil strife.
A new address
To put Chef Munidasa’s offerings into perspective, Kaema Sutra is his third restaurant. His first is the highly awarded Japanese restaurant Nihonbashi — a nod to the chef’s part-Japanese descent — and then the legendary Ministry of Crab, in partnership with his friends, Sri Lankan cricket legends Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene. Both restaurants enjoy pride of place on the prestigious list of Asia’s Top 50 Best Restaurants. Kaema Sutra is his venture in collaboration with Sri Lankan Bollywood actor Jacqueline Fernandez. “Kaema Sutra is not entirely new, you know. We already had a Karma Sutra at Colombo’s Arcade Independence Square, but we shut that down and reopened at the hotel. We took a three-week break between the two venues,” he tells me.
After exclusively running standalone restaurants, opening up an outlet in a hotel must come with its share of challenges. “The scenarios are very different. It takes time to get used to working in a five-star hotel; it’s so different from a standalone. One of the biggest differences has been the supply-chain set-up. For Nihonbashi and Ministry of Crab, the staff and delivery is all ours. But for Kaema Sutra, I have to go through the hotel, so it is quite different. Thankfully, the staff has settled in and we’ve got our supply chain right.”
This leads me to my next question — after restaurants specialising in Japanese and crabs, what led the chef to finally go back to Sri Lankan cuisine? “I always wanted to open a Sri Lankan restaurant. In the ’90s, I wanted to do a wood-fired Sri Lankan kitchen. All the curries would be pre-made and if we ran out, well, we ran out. The idea then got thrown out and came back to the front when Jacqueline and I decided to open Kaema Sutra together.”
As I pore over the menu, which features a variety of reinterpreted Sri Lankan staples, it appears to me that Kaema Sutra’s menu is the most creative of the three. “There are more new dishes here than in my other restaurants. For example, I use squid ink in one of the dishes. Sri Lankan restaurants are predominantly buffets, so everything is made hours before. Here, I do slow-cooked curries. The crab curry and tuna curry is made at the table. I want to evolve traditional food. I use modern equipment and tools to recreate old favourites. It’s important for me to engineer my food to suit current needs,” he says, insisting vehemently that his cuisine be referred to as Sri Lankan-inspired cuisine as opposed to the more simplistic Sri Lankan cuisine tag.
A culinary agenda
Putting modern Sri Lankan cuisine on the global food map has been one of Munidasa’s missions. “I want the food to be recognised first by Sri Lankans and then the world. We are capitalising on the success of our previous restaurants in order to showcase this new menu to the world. Most importantly, through Kaema Sutra, I want to prove that Sri Lankan cuisine is ingredient-specific and bathed in history and tradition. It is a sophisticated cuisine.” When Nihonbashi opened, he asserts, no one knew that Sri Lanka had the best tuna in the world, not even the locals. “When I told people in Sri Lanka that I was putting tuna on the menu at Nihonbashi, they were freaking out as it was the cheapest fish on the island. Today, it is the most expensive, sought-after fish. At Kaema Sutra, we make a traditional tuna ambul thiyal. It is a tuna curry cooked in a clay pot for hours and hours to get every single drop of water out of the fish.
The art of cooking
The process of conceptualising the menu and researching the cuisine must have been an exciting one, I ask him. “I am doing it for the love of it. With Kaema Sutra, the idea was to research to make things bigger and better. For example, I wanted to make the string hopper larger than life. I want to make it more than just a meal. It can stay in the pot for days because it is so dry and the fish is almost dehydrated. Other things that we have worked on include the lamprais. We got Jacqueline’s aunt to come and help us — we give her full credit for the recipe. We watched her cook and then I added some of what I know. I use eight parts of the chicken to get different stocks, we blend those parts to make the final stock in which we cook the rice. I’ve added a ramen-style approach to preparing the rice, too. Don’t forget to try our curries — they aren’t very watery. I use Japanese techniques and the right amount of water. Our hopper is gluten-free.”
Just like the crab at Ministry of Crab, one of the stars of the show at the new restaurant is the hopper. The chef shares a little insider secret. “We are trying to make better egg hopper. We are feeding one lot of chickens — 2,500 birds — a special corn to make the yoke of their eggs redder. So when that happens, we will probably get the reddest egg hopper in the world.” Interestingly, the idea of Kaema Sutra (which means ‘the art of cooking’) came up when the chef and Jacqueline Fernandez decided to start a TV show. The TV show didn’t quite work out, but it resulted in a restaurant.
Today, Munidasa is on a high. Look through his social media feeds and you will see him globetrotting, hosting pop-ups and talking about his unique brand of cuisine. When he is not at his restaurants or travelling the world, he is often seen at fish markets, holding up a huge tuna or clutching a giant crab. “In a way, I am showing off. Today, to go to a fish market and hold an entire fish is a luxury. Most chefs in Dubai or Singapore aren’t even touching the fish. It is really a luxury to touch and hold fresh fish, especially since there is so much packaged fish in the market. There was a time when every single tuna in my restaurants was chosen by me. It was hectic and stressful but so much fun.”
Recently, Munidasa announced the arrival of Ministry of Crab in partnership with Mumbai-based hospitality group Gourmet Investments, slotted for a May-June 2018 opening. “I am keen on opening up in India, but it is not an easy place for restaurants. Food ideology is a challenge. If you change the Ministry of Crab menu too much, it will dilute the identity. I might add two or three more dishes, but not more. I can see Indian guests telling us to make changes to our dishes, but I find that hard to do. We have always been in the shadow of Indian cuisine. But things have changed now and Sri Lankan cuisine is so much more than just hoppers.”
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