What It Is: A catch-and-release program for trophy-sized crabs and prawns: they catch them in Sri Lanka and release them into a gleaming kitchen in People’s Park. This is the first time award-winning (puke) Sri Lankan restaurant Ministry of Crab has opened a branch off the island, and, curiously, mysteriously, amusingly – victoriously! – it has not gone first to Singapore (who know a thing or two about crabs), Hong Kong (who know a thing or two about trophy seafood), or Tokyo (who know a thing or two about hoovering up the world’s supply of marine life). Asia’s 50 Best List, which is best only when it’s ignored, has ranked this as the 27th best restaurant on our continent, as if that can be done. Cynicism aside, it is a very lovely idea: buy genuinely spectacular examples of seafood, do very little to them in the kitchen, and let them impress on the plate. It is the new ground floor of the building that houses Barbarossa, the restaurant in People’s Park.
First Impressions: These are not prawns and crabs as you know them. They are prehistoric in their dimensions, overwhelming the little white plates they are served on, laughing at the puny and pathetic creatures that call themselves crabs and prawns in other parts of the world, and flexing their size for all to see. They are show-offs. They are cocky. They are arrogant. And god damn, they are delicious. Have you ever even had the option of ordering a single prawn that weighs more than a newborn baby? No you haven’t, not unless you have been to Old Dutch Hospital, a 400 year-old building in Colombo, Sri Lanka, that is home to the original Ministry of Crab. It’s called Prawnzilla.
I ate one half the size of Prawnzilla at lunch last week, and it was still the largest prawn I’ve ever seen in my life. I did not ask how they grow them so big. I do not want to know. I’m still struggling to believe this is legal. It was covered in an inky slick of black pepper sauce and when I separated the head from the tail, a delicious and oily pink cream poured out like it was some kind of Thai curry. That is natural tomalley, at “ ‘zilla” proportions. Obviously you order by the single piece. They apologized for not having any of the larger sizes of prawn.
But it’s not called Ministry of Prawn. The protagonist in this play about hubris and gigantism is the Sri Lankan mud crab, in iterations starting at 500 grams and going up to 2kg+, at which point they become known as Crabzilla. On the day we went, we got a peek into the kitchen after lunch as the new shipment had come in from Sri Lanka, and saw the crabs being taken out of their Styrofoam boxes (their claws are tied and they are flown in by air, out of the water, and presumably in economy-class seats) and individually weighed.
The largest one of the batch we watched was 1.6kg, which is.. which is… which is… pornographic? exaggerated? unnecessary? the way animals used to be on this planet before we ate all the adults and are now stuck eating smaller and smaller versions of their former selves?
We had tangled with a specimen that weighed a measly 600-800 grams for lunch, covered in butter and a Sri Lankan curry paste, plucking out the nuggets of meat from the body, cracking open the long legs for tubes of sweet leg meat, and picking apart the heavy claws, which come pre-smashed, and making piles of the short-fibered claw meat to eat in big, extravagant spoonfuls. They serve toasted garlic bread, for a price, to soak up the rest of the sauce on the plate, once you have extinguished the crustacean and you will probably want two orders of that, just to be sure.
It made for an excellent lunch, overlooking the park at a windowside table, drinking their special peach iced tea (the original in Sri Lanka serves only iced tea, lambasting soft drinks for being too sugary), and feasting on overgrown prawns and a crab. It also cost 400rmb per person but that is exceedingly fair – crustaceans like this are highly uncommon and shouldn’t be cheap, if only because of how long it must take for them to grow to these sizes. All in all, a fine and excellent addition to Shanghai that will no doubt be flooded with seafood-seekers as soon as the rest of the city hears the thunderous footsteps of Crabzilla emanating from the park.