Updated: February 21, 2016 12:00:29 am
Dharsan Munidasa remembers the dark years of the civil war in Sri Lanka and how peace, now established in the island nation, still feels new. Born in Tokyo to a Sri Lankan father, and a Japanese mother, he lived with his family in Japan before moving to Colombo in 1977. His father was a doctor while his mother stayed at home to look after him and his two younger siblings. “We witnessed the atrocities committed in the civil war that started six years later and carried on for decades. But our restaurant stayed open through out. There were suicide bombers taking their own lives and others outside but inside we continued our service,” recalls Munidasa. The restaurant was Nihonbashi, meaning Japan Bridge, a Japanese restaurant started by his mother in 1994, after his father’s demise.
In 2013, Nihonbashi became the first Sri Lankan restaurant to be included in the coveted Restaurant Magazine’s Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, a feat it has repeated every year. Munidasa is a self-taught chef— he graduated from Johns Hopkins University with a degree in computer engineering and international relations. Recently, the 45-year-old chef was in Delhi, cooking up a storm for diplomats and guests at the Sri Lankan High Commission, gathered there to celebrate the Sri Lankan national day on February 4.
Nihonbashi serves authentic Japanese cuisine, using both local and Japanese ingredients; their prized dish is his Japanese-style preparation of Sri Lankan tuna. Munidasa approaches Japanese cuisine as a philosophy. This means cooking in concert with the seasons and using the best of local ingredients. “I consider myself to be an ingredient-based chef,” says Munidasa. For certain dishes, he sources his fish from Tokyo’s famed Tsukiji fish market, while the bulk of his ingredients come from Sri Lankan waters. “You can run a Japanese restaurant at half the cost if you use seafood from the Indian Ocean,” says Munidasa.
Nihonbashi is not his only passion; Munidasa has his fingers in not one, but three restaurants in Colombo. In 2011, he opened Ministry of Crab, co-owned with cricketers Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, who were frequent diners at Nihonbashi. The restaurant was also included in the 2015 list, making Munidasa the only chef with two eateries recognised by the magazine.
As peace slowly returned to his country, Munidasa beganshowcasing Sri Lankan cuisine, which he felt hadn’t received enough attention, especially as it had stagnated during the war years. The cuisine’s staples include rice, curries, spices and, of course, a lot of seafood. In 2014, he opened Kaema Sutra with Bollywood actor Jacqueline Fernandez, which specialised in contemporary Sri Lankan fare. “No one was doing anything different. Curries were made in bulk and kept for long periods, appams (rice hoppers) were not really used in commercial kitchens; it was very drab. So I approached it the way I do Japanese food. We use the freshest seasonal local produce, Japanese knives and implements, we do crazy things with the hoppers. I make curries a la minute (made fresh as ordered). We have a chicken curry that takes exactly five minutes to prepare from scratch,” says Munidasa, proud of having made the hopper “relevant again”. “We stuffed our hoppers with cheese, with curries, even with chocolate chips and whipped cream for a dessert. And people, locals as well as tourists, loved it,” he says.
It’s at Kaema Sutra that Munidasa feels the most creative but he’s the first to admit Ministry of Crab, where the prized dish is fresh lagoon crab, is the most popular. “Our revenue every 10 days matches our investment in the restaurant,” he says. The restaurant is highly popular with the cricketing fraternity as well. “One night, Kumar and Mahela threw open the restaurant to the entire New Zealand team and comped the food and bar menu. Virat, in fact, wants me to come and open a restaurant in Delhi,” he said. Which one? Ministry of Crab, of course.
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