Chef and restaurateur Dharshan Munidasa, Engr '94, is a man of two islands. Born in Tokyo to a Japanese mother and a Sri Lankan father, he spent his childhood hopping between the two nations and enjoying their distinct gastronomic traditions. Today Munidasa owns a dozen fine-dining restaurants in a pan-Asian culinary empire stretching from Mumbai to Bangkok.
Do a Google search on his name and he'll pop up smiling in his trademark black apron, clutching a pair of jumbo lagoon crabs. These crustaceans, also known as mud crabs, are the stars of his Ministry of Crab restaurants, whose flagship outpost in Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo, has long been perched on the coveted Asia's 50 Best Restaurants list, compiled by British food and beverage publisher William Reed.
"All the crabs are wild-caught, and they need to be alive when they come into the kitchen," Munidasa says over Zoom from New Delhi, where he'd brought a batch of the clawed beasts to prepare for a crab-focused pop-up event at a hotel. "They come from brackish waters where rivers meet the ocean," he adds, noting that while found across Asia, Sri Lanka's pristine lagoons produce the biggest and best.
And to think Munidasa, who doubled-majored in computer engineering and international relations, owes his hard-shell culinary kingdom to the Hopkins dining hall. Well, sort of.
His family wanted him to head west for college. "My dad told me I could choose between the U.S. or the U.K.," Munidasa recalls. "And I'm thinking, in the U.K. the food is bad and the weather is bad." America for the win! But while the skies might be sunnier in Baltimore than London, as to the food offered at Homewood in the early '90s? "You could eat it, but it was never interesting," Munidasa says. "It was mass-produced. Boring."
To eat well he needed to teach himself to cook well—a more challenging proposition back before you could Google recipes, watch prep tutorials on YouTube, or set the remote to the Food Network. Instead, he turned to his aunts and grandmother in Japan and his mother in Sri Lanka. "I had to make phone calls very quickly as there was no free WhatsApp to use," he says. "I also started paying a lot of attention to cooking while I was on holiday in Sri Lanka and Japan."
His stovetop studies went well, and chicken curry, grilled salmon, and lobster sashimi were just some of the dishes he turned out for himself and his roommates in a university-owned apartment. And while five-for-a-buck packs of instant ramen are a perennial college student staple, Munidasa gave it an upgrade: "I deboned chicken myself and then I would keep the bones in the freezer to make a nice stock for ramen," he says.
While his kitchen skills saved him from "boring" American meals, it was still a hobby, not a vocation. After attending a Japanese job fair his senior year, he had a Tokyo tech job waiting for him upon graduation. Unfortunately, his father's untimely death upended those plans and sent him home to be with his mother in Sri Lanka. While contemplating his next move in the tech world, in 1995 he and his mother opened the Japanese restaurant Nihonbashi in Colombo. Now his ongoing quest for culinary knowledge and the best ingredients led him to Tokyo's legendary fish market to ask questions of the fishmongers. "I also started going to Sri Lanka's wholesale fish market, where I learned how crabs were graded and how to choose a good one," he says. "I don't think even culinary school teaches you stuff like that."
As Nihonbashi flourished—eventually becoming the first Sri Lankan restaurant to crack that acclaimed "50 Best" list—Munidasa's desire for an office job withered. By 2010, he had achieved celebrity chef status, and Sri Lankan foodies could watch him cook his way across Asia on a TV show called Culinary Journeys With Dharshan.
Curiously, an episode filmed in Singapore cemented his connection to Sri Lankan crab. It seems Singaporeans love lagoon crab, with a preparation called chili crab tantamount to a national dish. Thing is, most all the crabs they eat are imported from Sri Lanka. "It was kind of wild to film a homage to our crabs in Singapore and to thank Singapore for making our crabs famous," Munidasa says. "But it was also kind of annoying that another country took our ingredient. After one of my friends saw the show, he was like, 'Dharshan, why don't you do a crab restaurant?' And that's how the seed got planted."
That seed has grown into seven Ministry of Crab restaurants in five countries, each with crabs entering a kitchen alive and kicking and priced by size, from about a pound each up to beasts they playfully call Crabzillas tipping the scales at over 4 pounds. His Sri Lankan eateries also include Kaema Sutra, offering Sri Lankan fare, and The Tuna and The Crab, serving a mix of Japanese and local dishes. His latest venture, Carne Diem, adds turf to his surf offerings: The steakhouse in the Maldives employs a proprietary system to cook skewered meat suspended over charcoal heated to over 1300 degrees Fahrenheit. Steaks never encounter a grill or pan. (Part of the process involves using a Dyson hair dryer to supercharge the coals like a mini blast furnace.)
Looking for more culinary bona fides? Perhaps the ultimate sign of foodie coolness is being tapped to nosh with Anthony Bourdain, as Munidasa was when the globetrotting chef's program Parts Unknown visited Sri Lanka in 2017. The two chatted over cans of beer and street food on the Colombo waterfront. "It was amazing to hang out with him," says Munidasa, recalling the late chef. "His TV persona might not suggest it, but he was very humble."
While his career was spawned by Hopkins dining hall misdeeds, Munidasa says he does draw on his lecture hall lessons, as well. He taps his engineering know-how every time he designs a new restaurant, and a background in international relations doesn't hurt when your business crosses so many borders. "We work a lot with embassies and have ambassadors coming to us for events, and I think my having gone to Hopkins makes a huge difference to them," he says. "It's a different background for a restaurant owner."
Strange as it may seem, one glaring edible omission from Munidasa's Maryland days is the state crustacean: the beloved Chesapeake blue crab. "They just looked so small and not very inspiring," he says. "It is funny that I'd never even tried them."
Posted in Arts+Culture
Tagged alumni, cooking, south asian, crabs