January in Tokyo. My boys like to catch some of the action at Ryogoku Kokugikan. Tokyo’s National Sumo Stadium. The flags are out. That means the Grand Sumo Tournament is in full swing.
Sumo wrestling is Japan’s national sport. It’s full of pomp, ceremony and ritual. Pure theatre. It originated as a performance in ancient times to entertain the Shinto gods. It’s action packed. Fast and furious. Each bout lasting only a few seconds. In rare cases maybe a minute. The basic rules are simple. The wrestler who first touches the ground with anything besides the soles of his feet, or leaves the competition ring before his opponent, loses.
When visiting Ryogoku for a sumo tournament the thing to do is eat sumo food. Sumo wrestlers eat a hearty stew called chanko-nabe ちゃんこ鍋. Every day to build up strength. At the sumo stable where they live and train there is no hard-and-fast rule about what goes into the pot. Oddly, it’s actually a fairly healthy dish of chicken, fish, tofu and vegetables cooked in a seasoned broth. Sumos just eat a lot of it.
Ryogoku is indisputably sumo town. Full of restaurants. Specialising in chanko-nabe. Many operated by retired sumo wrestlers themselves. No doubt to capitalise on an adoring fan base. The most authentic place to eat this dish? In the basement of the Sumo Stadium. A large, cavernous dining hall filled with communal tables. For a few hundred yen steaming chanko-nabe is ladled from large urns into your waiting bowl.
There are three 15 day tournaments held in Tokyo each year. On each tournament day the chanko-nabe served in the basement of the stadium is prepared according to a recipe submitted by one of the forty-seven participating sumo stables. The dining hall may be unsophisticated but the chanko-nabe doesn’t get any more authentic than that. My husband and son enjoyed their bowl of sumo stew. They proclaimed it filling and very tasty.
Chanko-Nabe (Sumo Stew)
Adapted from At the Japanese Table: New and Traditional Recipes by Lesley Downer
Enough for 4 sumo sized servings.
Prepared and eaten in sumo stables throughout Japan. This particular adaptation is served during sumo tournaments and features chicken which is symbolically preferred. A chicken walks on two feet. A sumo wrestler needs stay on two feet to win his match. To fall on all fours would mean the loss of the match. Thus the inclusion of flesh from four-legged animals (fall on all fours) and fish (no hands or feet) in your stew might bring bad luck.
1 medium chicken
2-3 leeks, washed and trimmed
4 carrots, peeled
1 daikon radish, peeled
1 medium or large potato, peeled
10-12 shiitake mushrooms (if using dry ones, soak
in warm water until soft)
2 medium onions, peeled
1 medium cabbage, washed
350 g deep-fried tofu (abura-age)
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup mirin
1/2 teaspoon salt
BONE the chicken and cut the meat into chunks 3 – 5 cm, reserving the bones. Cut the leeks and 3 of the carrots into bite-sized pieces. Put the chicken bones, leeks, and carrots into a large saucepan, fill it with water, and bring to the boil. Turn the heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, for 3 hours to make stock, then strain.
SLICE the daikon and potato into bite-sized pieces and parboil until just tender in lightly salted water in a separate pot; drain.
DISCARD mushroom stalks; slice the mushroom caps and onion into quarters.
CHOP the cabbage into small pieces, and remaining carrot into chunks.
SLICE the deep-fried tofu into strips.
To Cook and Serve
BRING strained chicken stock to a rolling simmer over medium heat in a clay or heavy pot.
ADD chicken, mushroom, cabbage, onion and carrot to the stock pot with soy sauce.
SIMMER until chicken and vegetables are cooked. About 20 – 30 minutes.
ADD daikon, potato and tofu. Season to taste with mirin and salt. Simmer a few minutes more. Serve hot over a burner in the centre of the table or ladled into bowls.
WHEN the stew is finished, hungry wrestlers sometimes top up any remaining soup with cooked udon noodles.