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Chanko: Sumo wrestlers’ diet

08 Dec 2022 00:00:00 | Update: 08 Dec 2022 00:38:36
Chanko: Sumo wrestlers’ diet

Technically speaking, anything prepared and eaten by sumo wrestlers can be called chanko—the dish is defined by its association with the sport rather than a recipe. But the average Japanese person will tell you that chanko is a stew or soup: a pot of bubbling broth, to which ingredients are added or removed. In some respects, it’s not so different from shabu shabu or other hot pot dishes. It usually features one kind of meat or fish, tofu, vegetables, and big chunks of calorie-dense mochi, a starchy cake made of pounded glutinous rice. (A matchbox-sized hunk of mochi might have as many calories as an entire bowl of rice.) The broth may be chicken, miso, soy, or salt-based: Training houses usually have their own signature soup. It’s cheap, hearty fare, but in ordinary quantities, not intrinsically fattening.

Instead, it is the way chanko stew is consumed that makes it a cornerstone of sumo dining. An ordinary person might have one or two bowls of chanko. Wrestlers, meanwhile, skip breakfast to work up an appetite, then regularly eat as many as ten bowls for lunch, washed down with copious amounts of beer. All that chanko is converted into extra bulk by taking a hard-earned nap straight after lunch. As David Benjamin writes in Sumo: A Thinking Fan’s Guide to Japan’s National Sport: “When you’re a sumo wrestler, you get to live in a clubhouse where no girls are allowed. You’re encouraged to eat all you want and have ‘thirds’ on dessert. You nap all afternoon, and drink beer all night.” Matches are a few seconds long—you’ll never be late for dinner—and held in a comfortable, climate-controlled environment.

This is all true, but downplays the structure and rigor of “the clubhouse,” more commonly known as a heya, training house, or stable. Every heya has its own rules, structure, and traditions, and almost all are run by a training master (oyakata) and his wife. These two take an almost parental role in the lives of their charges, many of whom move into the stable at the age of just 15 or 16. Each wrestler has chores to perform, which change with their superiority. A surprising number of these revolve around chanko.

At the most lowly end, chanko chores involve setting up the eating area, cycling to buy groceries, or chopping vegetables. (The highest-ranked wrestlers are usually tasked only with making public appearances or entertaining patrons.) While kitchen duty may be entry-level, being in charge of the kitchen—chankocho—is a position of respect. Beyond chopping and menu planning and budgeting, writes R. Kenji Tierney in an essay in the journal Food, Cultural & Society, “[It is] also an acknowledgment that the wrestler’s future is not in the ring, but in some faraway kitchen.”

Not every wrestler can be a champion. For the vast majority who leave the house after a decade or two, chanko can be the route into another profession. In these instances, the non-wrestling skills they have learned in the stable are often the most useful—chopping, certainly, but also managing others in the kitchen, cooking, and keeping to a budget. “As a wrestler ascends in seniority, depending on his wrestling trajectory, he will either gain cooking duties with more responsibility or he will be excused from the kitchen completely to fulfill the duties of a prominent wrestler,” Kenji Tierney writes. Many retired wrestlers work at sumo-themed restaurants called chankoya, where high-end seafood chanko is the main attraction. The most famous among them will even open their own eponymous chankoya, where their stardust attracts clients as much as what’s on the menu—among them, Kotogaume Tsuyoshi, who enjoyed some high-profile success in the 1980s and 1990s. For such men, chanko continues to define their lives long after retirement.


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