Sumo's Stamina Stew
July 14, 2016
Perfect Party Food
Chanko is a practical dish, but it’s also very tasty. Starting with a basic soup stock – often chicken – the pot is loaded with vegetables including mushrooms, cabbage and chives, then tofu and meat such as chicken and pork, and seafood including scallops and prawns. Fukuro, or deep-fried sheets of tofu wrapped around sticky rice, is also common. But almost anything goes. Stocks other than chicken are common as well, such as miso fermented bean paste, kimchi pickled cabbage, and even curry. As the soup cooks down and thickens, it turns richer. Noodles or other starch may be added.
The one rule, says Morita, is that during tournament times, the only meat used is chicken. That’s because wrestlers are not just spiritual, but superstitious too. “Pork and beef are from four-legged animals,” Morita says. “And as you know, going down on all fours in the ring…you’ve lost, right?”
Chanko’s sharing nature makes it a perfect dish for a party. The streets around the Kokugikan sumo stadium on the Sumidagawa River in south-eastern Tokyo are home to many chanko restaurants. Most have been established by ex-wrestlers or their relatives. Many serve the dish in private tatami-mat rooms in which you sit on the floor. The furnishings tend to be well worn, and the emphasis will be on practicality and volume. Other dishes such as fried chicken may be available, just like a menu at an izakaya Japanese pub.
When you go to eat chanko, you don’t expect a fine dining experience. This is food for wrestlers. It’s not glamorous. You wouldn’t even want a star wrestler serving you. As Morita says, the best wrestlers only spend a short time in the lower ranks. So they get little experience creating chanko. “Hakuho shot up in a year or so,” he says. “Those guys tend not to be good cooks. But the guys who battle away in the lower ranks for like, 10 years…they’re the sort who open restaurants. And they might be really good cooks!”
Text: Mark Robinson