Chankonabe, the stew of the sumo wrestlers.
While most of us are strategizing our winter weight loss for that beach body come spring, there’s a group of Japanese bulking up to prepare for wrestling season. They are the popular sumo wrestlers of Japan, who’s season starts in early March. The optimal weight for a modern Japanese sumo wrestler is between 400 and 600 pounds, and that’s sustained by a daily diet of a whopping 20,000 calories! That’s an astounding amount of food considering the recommended intake for an active, healthy male is 2500 calories.
My first trip to Japan was in late March right at the popular opening of sumo season, so, like getting tickets for Hamilton in New York City, I was relegated to a less popular and equally weird Japanese leisure activity, the kabuki theatre.
Sumo is considered a modern martial art, but has been around professionally since the Edo Period, and religiously much further back than that. It is said to have originated at Shinto temples, where it represented humans wrestling with Shinto gods. The goal of a sumo match is for one of the freakishly large wrestlers to push the other either outside of the circle ring, or flip them inside the circle so they land on anything but the soles of their feet.
So what makes up the 20,000 calorie diet of the sumo wrestler? It’s actually a relatively healthy stew called chankonabe. It’s not your fried chicken or double whopper. Nabe is a traditional Japanese stew, but the sumo version is amped up with fish, pork, chicken, beef, tofu and vegetables. To make up for the calories the seemingly healthy stew offers, the sumo wrestler, called a rikishi, eats 5-10 bowls or rice and up to 6 pints of beer. They also skip breakfast and work out to slow down their metabolism before this behemoth lunch. Then, they nap after each meal to help again slow down their metabolism.
Sumo wrestlers live and eat together in a commune called a heya, and are under strict regulations by the National Sumo Association of Japan.
The non-sumo tourist can eat chankonabe at restaurants around Japan. It comes in a variety of flavors, including, soy, miso, kimchee, and more. But you have to bring a hefty appetite. While none of the local Japanese restaurants like Matsuya, Kosho, or Ando, serve the chankonabe, they all serve the lighter and more interactive version, called shabu shabu. And now, even some of the Thai restaurants like Bankock Bistro around the corner from me are jumping on the shabu shabu – just don’t eat 10 bowls or rice and 6 Sapporo beers if you want that beach body!