Citizens, there are few sports as ephemeral in duration and yet massive in impact as the glorious art of Sumo wrestling! Many are familiar with these formidable giants, their unusual stances and perhaps even their even more unusual way of life. This is a discipline that demands lifelong commitment, and I am honored to share the favored meal of Sumo with you today, known as chanko-nabe.
First, allow me the privilege of educating you around this sport that defines Japanese honor, codes of conduct and history! The chanko-nabe will follow soon enough!
Sumo (相撲 sumō, lit. “striking one another”) is a form of competitive full-contact wrestling where a rikishi (wrestler) attempts to force his opponent out of a circular ring (dohyō) or into touching the ground with any body part other than the soles of his feet (usually by throwing, shoving or pushing him down).
The sport originated in Japan, the only country where it is practiced professionally. It is considered a gendai budō, which refers to modern Japanese martial art, but the sport has a history spanning many centuries. Many ancient traditions have been preserved in sumo, and even today the sport includes many ritual elements, such as the use of salt purification, from Shinto.
Life as a wrestler is highly regimented, with rules regulated by the Japan Sumo Association. Most sumo wrestlers are required to live in communal sumo training stables, known in Japanese as heya, where all aspects of their daily lives—from meals to their manner of dress—are dictated by strict tradition. In addition to its use as a trial of strength in combat, sumo has been associated with Shinto ritual. Some shrines carry out forms of ritual dance where a human is said to wrestle with a kami, a Shinto divine spirit.
It was an important ritual at the imperial court, where representatives of each province were ordered to attend the contest at the court and fight. The contestants were required to pay for their travel themselves. The contest was known as sumai no sechie, or “sumai party”.
Over the rest of recorded Japanese history, sumo’s popularity changed according to the whims of rulers and the need for its use as a training tool in periods of civil strife. The form of wrestling combat changed gradually into one where the main aim in victory was to throw one’s opponent. The concept of pushing one’s opponent out of a defined area came sometime later.
A ring, defined as something other than simply the area given to the wrestlers by spectators, is also believed to have come into being in the 16th century as a result of a tournament organized by the then principal warlord in Japan, Oda Nobunaga.
At this point, wrestlers would wear loose loincloths rather than the much stiffer mawashi wrestling belts of today. During the Edo period, wrestlers would wear a fringed decorative apron called a keshō-mawashi during the match, whereas today these are worn only during pre-tournament rituals. Most of the rest of the current forms within the sport developed in the early Edo period.
The winner of a sumo bout is generally either the first wrestler to force his opponent to step out of the ring, or the first wrestler to force his opponent to touch the ground with any part of his body other than the bottom of his feet. Also, a number of other less common rules can be used to determine the winner.
For example, a wrestler using an illegal technique (kinjite) automatically loses, as does one whose mawashi (belt) comes completely undone. A wrestler failing to show up for his bout (even if due to prior injury) also automatically loses (fusenpai).
The initial crouch and charge are crucial. Upon positioning themselves opposite each other, the wrestlers perform a deep squat; without taking their feet off the ground, they then move forwards into a head-first crouched position, whilst also resting on one or two fists.
This position is important because it allows them to adopt a more efficient posture to charge from and also isometrically preloads their muscles: this enables them to spring up and charge their opponents more powerfully when the referee signals the bout to begin. A successful charge is usually a powerful charge and is often a key determining factor in who wins the bout.
Bouts consist solely of a single round and often last only a few seconds, as usually one wrestler is quickly ousted from the circle or thrown to the ground. However, they can occasionally last for several minutes. Each match is preceded by an elaborate ceremonial ritual.
Traditionally, sumo wrestlers are renowned for their great girth and body mass, which is often a winning factor in sumo. No weight divisions are used in professional sumo; a wrestler can sometimes face an opponent twice his own weight.
However, with superior technique, smaller wrestlers can control and defeat much larger opponents. The average weight of top division wrestlers has continued to increase, from 125 kilograms (276 lb) in 1969 to over 150 kilograms (330 lb) by 1991, and was a record 166 kilograms (366 lb) as of January 2019. Chanko-nabe has played an important role in ‘supersizing’ these warriors of the ring!
Now as to chanko-nabe: this is a Japanese stew (a type of nabemono or one-pot dish) commonly eaten in vast quantity by sumo wrestlers as part of a weight-gain diet.
Chanko-nabe contains a dashi or chicken broth soup base with sake or mirin to add flavor. The dish is not made according to a fixed recipe and often contains whatever is available to the cook; the bulk is made up of large quantities of protein sources such as chicken, fish (fried and made into balls), tofu, or sometimes beef, and vegetables (daikon, bok choy, etc.).
While considered a reasonably healthy dish in its own right, chanko-nabe is very protein-rich and usually served in massive quantities, with beer and rice to increase the caloric intake. Leftover chanko-nabe broth can also later be used as broth for sōmen or udon noodles.
Chanko-nabe is traditionally served according to seniority, with the senior wrestlers and any guests of the sumo stable receiving first choice, with the junior wrestlers getting whatever is left. Chanko-nabe is also a popular restaurant food, often served in restaurants operated by retired sumo wrestlers who specialize in the dish; the first of these, Kawasaki Chanko, was started in 1937 in the Ryōgoku district of Tokyo, home to many prominent sumo stables.
Chanko-nabe served outside of those about to enter the ring is most often a hodge-podge of different ingredients that are protein- and carb-heavy to help pack on the pounds, but traditionally the only meat that would be served to a wrestler during a Sumo bout was chicken. The reason? Chickens are the only animal we eat that stands on two legs, and wrestlers were superstitious that any four-footed animal in the stew would force them onto all fours in the ring, and result in a loss.
Being ever the traditionalist, my chanko-nabe uses only chicken meat and poached eggs for its protein. I do add a heterodoxical seasoning with yuzu-kosho, a spicy and numbing paste made from sansho (a relative of Sichuan peppercorns unique to Japan) and chile. I also serve my chanko-nabe with the traditional sauces and mine MUST be made in a proper Japanese earthenware pot, called a donabe.
It will get much use, I promise – you can buy an exceptional handmade one here. As to ingredients, you can buy yuzu-kosho here, pre-made, top-quality instant dashi here, udon from here, shichimi from here, artisanal ponzu sauce from here and Japanese mayonnaise here.
Citizens, now that Winter is upon us in all its freezing glory, chanko-nabe will warm your bones in a way you never imagined possible – please do try it as I am fully confident you will love every spoonful! You may wish to enjoy this with a starter of Japanese gyoza dumplings, assuming you have no plans to enter the ring, of course! 😉
Battle on – the Generalissimo
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