Since ending a brutal 27-year conflict in 2009, Sri Lanka is writing a new chapter in her history, which is seeing the country growing and changing in leaps and bounds. One of the first things I noticed on my latest trip there, after the absence of about a year, was how clean the streets of Colombo have become. Forget about those rotting mounds of garbage that pockmarked the urban landscape–you’re hard-pressed to find even the odd scrap of litter. I’m talking capital C-L-E-A-N. Minister of Defense cum Urban Development Gotabaya Rajapaksa deserves kudos for his beautification campaign, which includes knocking down the walls around all public spaces to create a sense of openness, which is, indeed, very rare these days in most congested Asian capitals. The government is also behind the renovation and restoration of such historic sites as the Colombo Racetrack and the Old Dutch Hospital, both of which have been turned into luxury shopping complexes boasting fine restaurants and bars. Originally built in 1677, the Old Dutch Hospital, in particular, provides a fitting showpiece for the new Colombo—elegant, exciting, and certainly not cheap. As headquarters for the culinary hotspot known as Ministry of Crab, it is a mandatory stop for all visitors here.
I had heard reports about the Ministry often tempered by complaints about how pricey it is. According to their own website, an XL crab clocking in at about a kilo will run you RS 5250 (which comes to about US $41). Though you may instinctively shudder at the thought of paying that much for a single crab consider the fact that you have never, ever in your life laid eyes on such a monstrous creature unless, of course, you grew up near the lagoons of Negombo or Chilaw, where these crabs are sourced. And never mind the tantalizing sauces they are cooked in—chili garlic being my own personal favorite—which can be mopped up with the old-style kade pan (bread) with which they are served. The crabmeat itself is some of the richest, most succulent animal flesh on land or sea, and even the smallest of its legs is loaded with this white gold. So, if you are the type who appreciates good food and think nothing of, say, plunking down $80 for a couple of ounces of prime Kobe beefsteak, $40 for a 32 ounce crustacean seems like a bona fide bargain. When you also consider that these native lagoon crabs were never before available in Sri Lanka because they were all exported to Singapore, you are, in fact, getting a true taste of The Resplendent Isle.
Veteran restaurateur Darshan Munidasa, along with his partners, star cricketers, Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, are the men behind the Ministry, but it is Darshan who maintains a daily presence, when he’s not splitting time at his other exceptional establishment, Nihonbashi, without a doubt the finest Japanese restaurant within 1000 miles (Darshan is half Japanese himself). Brimming with new ideas and enthusiasm, this guy is on top of every detail here—from the design of the open kitchen; to the Japanese, carbon-steel woks used to cook the crabs; to the fact that the pol sambol is made to order here on traditional grindstones, and served in a coconut shell with a 5 mm layer of coconut meat left intact. He clearly loves what he’s doing, and he’s set the bar quite high for Sri Lanka’s fine dining establishments. Hopefully others will follow his lead.
Though I ate Sri Lankan clams for the first time, and the biggest freshwater prawns I’ve ever seen in my life, the star of the show was, no doubt, the Sri Lankan lagoon crab, which sent shivers of patriotism down my spine. Ministry also takes a playful approach to five-star dining providing customers with bibs, which you will definitely need as you dig into these crabs with both hands. As a connoisseur of crustaceans and a Cancer myself, I can honestly say that these were the biggest and best crabs I have ever eaten. But don’t take my word for it. Indulge for yourself! And long live Ministry of Crab!