Ashlee Starratt dons an apron and grabs some crab crackers to find out what makes the nation’s most famous eatery the ultimate celebration of Sri Lankan seafood..
The Indian Ocean has rushed forth to spill its bounty on the shores of Ceylon for long millennia; offerings such as sprats, cuttlefish, prawn, and lobster the backbone of maritime offerings that find their way from net to table. But venture further inland, to the mangrove pools and fecund lagoons that punctuate the island of Sri Lanka, and you’ll find the elusive species that holds pride of place – Scylla serrata, the Sri Lankan mud crab.
In a nation replete with natural resources, to think that its most prized delicacy has practically become a scarcity on the island is met with raised eyebrows. But the staggering reality is that the bulk of catches of these succulent crustaceans are exported abroad to satiate the appetites of Singapore – sometimes up to a half tonne per day.
That being said, if there’s one thing that the Sri Lankan spirit is renowned for – it’s resilience. In the aftermath of the country’s 26-year civil war which began in 1983 and ended in 2009, the nation has jockeyed to find its centre once again in an attempt towards a fragile new unity – from the reclaiming of ancestral lands, to a resurgence of culinary tradition.
At the forefront of this movement of reclamation, is chef Darshan Munidasa and Ministry of Crab – one of the only restaurants on the island nation dedicated to the celebration of Sri Lankan mud crab, and heroes the island’s seafood tradition. Culinary craftsman and storyteller, Munidasa brings Sri Lanka’s culinary tale to the plate at this award-winning restaurant, which he opened in 2011 with cricketing legends Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene.
Repeatedly name-checked as one of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, Ministry of Crab ranked 29th on the 2017 list, alongside Munidasa’s flagship Japanese restaurant Nihonbashi, which came in at number 49.
Situated in the capital’s historic Old Dutch Hospital district – one of the oldest buildings in Colombo Fort – Ministry of Crab’s location dates back to 1677 and the Dutch colonial era. What was once the home of Colombo’s old apothecaries, the area was a hub for the Dutch East India Company and a stone’s throw from the harbour teeming with ships and heaving with trade. Today it has gone through somewhat of a gentrification. While the original structure remains, once where seafarers and villagers trod among its cobbles, its open-air courtyards and alley-ways now swell with eclectic shops and restaurants, street music, art exhibitions and rooftop bars, that draw both tourists and Colombo’s upscale socialites alike.
With a prime location in the main, central courtyard of the Old Dutch Hospital, Ministry of Crab is packed with throngs of devotees at any given time of day, claw crackers in hand and decked out in ‘Keep Calm and Crab On’ aprons. The restaurant offers nine sittings every day just to accommodate the rush. Needless to say, reservations are an absolute must.
Despite its numerous accolades, Ministry of Crab remains unpretentious at its core. The focus is on simplicity and quality of local ingredients – namely its hero crustaceans. For the uninitiated, expect to get messy. Very, very messy. But that’s part and parcel of a Ministry of Crab experience. A “jumbo” crab starts at just over a kilo, whilst the largest on the menu – a “Crabzilla” – weighs-in at 2kg and above.
The restaurant’s ethos is based on freshness, quality and sustainability. Only the best catch of the day is served – always fresh, never frozen – and Ministry of Crab prides itself on being one of the lowest ‘food-mile’ restaurants in the world, in terms of distance from net to table.
The interior of the space reflects a rustic warmth that honours the heritage of the building in which it resides. A bar that would be at home in any seafaring speak-easy anchors the space at one end, while the open-plan central kitchen and crab holding tanks dominate the other, with additional outdoor seating spilling out into the stone courtyard for al fresco diners. These are especially choice spots to roost in the evenings and bask in the streetscape bustle over a half-kilo of the restaurant’s signature Chilli Crab.
Without a doubt the dish that put Sri Lanka in the spotlight when it comes to satiating the appetites of South Asia, Ministry of Crab’s chilli variety is not to be passed up. Using a calefaction of Sri Lankan chilli varieties, its rich depth of flavour will send a lusciously fiery tingle across your tongue that’s nothing less than moreish. Alternatively tuck into some Garlic Chilli Crab for an unctuous blend of Japanese and Mediterranean sensibilities that hit the palate with every morsel thanks to the liberal use of olive oil and Japanese soy sauce, that marry perfectly with lashings of fresh garlic and Sri Lankan chilli flakes.
For newcomers, there’s nothing quite like seeing your order making its way towards your table, legs and claws akimbo. Some tips to keep in mind before you tuck in: male crabs are larger and will have more luscious claw meat to tease out of the shell; meanwhile, whilst female crabs may be smaller, their meat is sweeter.
Here, perhaps the most important tip of all – don’t be afraid to eat with your hands and sop up every last succulent mouthful with slice after slice of toasted, buttered Sri Lankan kade bread.
Other menu standouts include the Pepper Crab which honours Sri Lanka’s age-old spice tradition using hand-crushed peppercorns, and the Butter Crab – which requires 6 hours notice as the crabmeat is served chilled with warm butter for dipping.
If there’s one menu item that could stake its claim as a supporting act to the restaurant’s crab offerings, its king prawns from the rivers of Sri Lanka. These definitely give the crabs a run for their money! Plump, sweet, and bursting flavour, prawns feature on the menu in a variety of sizes, with preparations much the same as their crab counterparts. Accompaniments include Ministry of Crab staples such as garlic or leek fried rice, kade bread, and a host of sides that speak to Munidasa’s Japanese and Sri Lankan heritage and influence – think Japanese-style Kani Chahan crab fried rice, to traditional preparations of Garlic Kankun – a leafy green native to the island.
For those looking to branch out, there are countless other tempting offerings, including Clay Pot Prawn Curry, King Prawn Bisque, a flight of six oyster shooters, a fiery Pol Sambol hand-scraped and ground to order and served with Maldivian fish, Japanese Ebi Shioyaki and salt-grilled prawns.
What Munidasa and his team have skillfully and lovingly attained at Ministry of Crab is a redemption of Sri Lanka’s culinary identity – where ancestral ingredients and methods of preparation are reacquainted amid flavours steeped in the tides of heritage. Ministry of Crab is almost the certainly the best place on the planet to feast on Sri Lankan mud crab. Not to mention the most fun!