A foray into sumo cookery

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

A foray into sumo cookery

TOKYO -- Some see sumo wrestlers as near-sacred beings: custodians of an ancient martial art infused with spirituality. Others see them as comic figures -- diapered buffoons with funny haircuts tugging each other around the ring. But everyone agrees on one thing: they're big. At 300, 400, 500 pounds, sumo wrestlers are giants in a country that tends toward the svelte.

How do they get so big? Chanko nabe.

Chanko nabe (pronounced chan-koh na-bay) is the meaty, protein-rich stew that forms the staple of the sumo diet. Most people in Japan try chanko nabe at restaurants owned and operated by former wrestlers. My introduction to chanko nabe came seated around the table with sumo wrestlers in the Tokyo stable (as the training houses are called) where I lived for a few weeks last winter.

Each day's chanko nabe was different. Sometimes it consisted of chicken pieces in a clear stock with cabbage, mushrooms and carrots; other times, it had chunks of pork in a spicy broth. The soup might be based with soy sauce or fermented soybeans, and it could have chicken, beef, pork, fish or any combination. It was always accompanied by a tableful of side dishes.

I ate chanko nabe with the wrestlers every day, and I liked it. But I never really understood what made it different from plain old nabe.

"Nabe" is Japanese for "pot." Nabe dishes dishes are stews, served out of a communal pot. Diners traditionally add a nabe's ingredients -- cabbage, leeks, mushrooms, sliced pork loin and fish -- to the simmering broth right at the table, and add new ingredients as the meal progresses.

I wondered: What distinguished the chanko nabe that the wrestlers ate? Did it have some secret sumo ingredient? One morning, while the stable's residents were doing their early morning training regimen, I slipped into the kitchen where one of the wrestlers, Takasaki, had started preparing lunch. He hadn't participated in a full workout for about two years because of an injury and now served as the stable's de facto head chef.

The kitchen had a low ceiling, a cement floor and plaster walls stained with smoke and grease. A double-basined sink stood in the middle.

When I walked into the kitchen, Takasaki was using a long, flat knife to cut a chicken into pieces. Chicken slime splashed onto his canvas loincloth. It was the only thing he wore as he scraped everything remotely edible off the carcass. He piled it all into a colander.

A younger wrestler who hadn't yet acquired the monumental gut, was in the kitchen too, grilling mackerel. He left the grill for a moment, and Takasaki came over with the colander of chicken pieces and used a ladle to divide them between the pots.

Takasaki remained by the pots, skimming off chicken fat as it surfaced. "Are you copying down the recipe?" he asked, seeing me scribble in my notebook.

"I'm waiting to see what secret ingredient makes it 'chanko,"' I answered.

A few other wrestlers crowded into the kitchen seeking shelter from the cold practice room. Batto, a Mongolian and the stable's one non-Japanese wrestler, and Saita, who always seemed to be smiling, gathered near the boiling pots. Even the hairdresser who came each day after practice to rub chamomile oil into the wrestlers' hair and tie their topknots, was there.

"There is no dish called 'chanko nabe,'" Takasaki revealed as he continued to skim the chicken fat. "'Chanko nabe' is a nabe that's made by sumo wrestlers. Anything that sumo wrestlers cook is called 'chanko."'

Sumo wrestlers, it turned out, could prepare sashimi and it would be "chanko sashimi." They could cook spaghetti and it would be "chanko spaghetti."

I was too caught up with Takasaki's cooking to let this disappoint me. He started shoveling plastic scoops of salt into each of the pots, then a few scoops of black pepper. He added a few splashes of spicy kimchi soup base. Then he sprinkled in what I thought was sugar.

"It's Ajinomoto," said Takasaki. In Japan, that's the brand name for MSG.

Added Saita: "Magic powder."

Takasaki kept working on the nabe, adding more spices, tasting the broth, then sprinkling in another round of seasoning. When he had the broth where he wanted it, he added the colanders of vegetables.

He gave Torifumi an affectionate pat on his bare, round belly. Then he added some mushrooms. The rest of the ingredients would be added once the nabe was set up on a burner in the common room.

Practice had ended. The wrestlers crowded into the kitchen, picking at whatever morsels they could lay their hands on.

Murayoshi, one of the stable's oldest wrestlers, tried a tablespoon of the broth and exclaimed, "This has no flavor." He poured in more kimchi base. Moriyasu, another senior wrestler, filched a loaf of unsliced white bread to toast for himself in his room; after 13 years in the stable, he couldn't stomach anything chanko anymore.

Takasaki continued stirring the nabe. Saita lodged a finger into his armpit.

"Here's the secret ingredient of chanko nabe," Saita said. "Sumo sweat."

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