Though it might be one of the most forward-thinking and technically advanced nations on earth, Japan is an island that remains defined by tradition. A cultural powerhouse whose ideologies have captured the imagination of people across the world, ancient rituals and practices permeate many aspects of contemporary Japanese life, perhaps more so than in any other “westernised” country. Theatre, literature, religion, art and language are all built upon the bedrock of thousands of years of history. This influence even extends to the nation’s sport.
While modern activities like football, baseball and rugby are growing a devoted following, there is still room for old favourites in the Japanese sportscape. If there is one sport that immediately springs to mind when people think of Japan, it’s sumo wrestling. Despite being considered a “gendai budo”, or “modernist martial art”, the sport has traditions that can be traced back hundreds of years. Sumo life is highly ritualised, with strict controls exercised over lifestyle, dress code and daily regime. Unsurprisingly, this rigid discipline is extended to food.
If you asked the majority of the world’s sumo-ignorant population what is most immediately obvious about sumo wrestling, size would undoubtedly come out on top. If decades of novelty sumo fat suits have taught us anything, it’s that competitors are big boned. The sport is explosive, with no emphasis on endurance, no upper limit on heft and no weight classes to separate competitors. In sumo, it pays to be packing. You could therefore be forgiven for assuming that a wrestler's diet is focused on a variety of fatty, bulk-building foods to help give them a competitive edge. The reality, surprisingly, is somewhat different.
Since Japan is the only nation where sumo wrestling is considered a professional discipline, this is where the vast majority of wrestlers work, train and live. As dictated by tradition, most sumo wrestlers are required to live in “heya” - communal training stables where their lives and regimes can be closely monitored. In every heya, regardless of location, the focal point is not the gym, but the kitchen. More specifically, life is overshadowed by bowl after bowl of a glutinous, calorie dense stew known as chankonabe.
Chankonabe dominates every aspect of a sumo’s career. It is eaten for almost every meal each day, often for years on end. Cooked in huge pots and served communally, chankonabe recipes vary from heya to heya. Technically, anything that is cooked and eaten by a sumo can be called chankonabe, as the dish does not have one definitive recipe. A typical chankonabe will have a dashi or chicken stock base, flavoured with sake or mirin and supplemented with vegetables and various protein sources including chicken, tofu, beef and deep-fried fish balls.
With such an array of tasty, fresh and nutritious ingredients forming the basis of a basic chankonabe, it would be easy to assume that the stew is a relatively healthy dish. Certainly, in a world of pizza and fried chicken, it does not seem an obvious candidate to support massive weight gain. There are two things that turn the stew into prime bulk boosting fuel. First, chankonabe is served with hefty helpings of highly calorific mochi rice cakes - a cup-sized portion of which can contain as many calories as an entire bowl of rice - and flagons of fattening Japanese beer. Second, the portion sizes are gargantuan. Wrestlers may often skip breakfast to work up an appetite, before packing away as many as 10 chankonabe bowls during both lunch and dinner. To ensure maximum weight gain, each mountainous meal is followed by a well-deserved nap. This regime means that wrestlers can consume over 20,000 calories every day.
Life in the heya is governed by a strict food culture. Junior wrestlers are given menial kitchen chores during their early years of training, such as chopping, table laying and cycling to nearby towns to source supplies, all while senior wrestlers sleep. This rigid hierarchy is reinforced at meal times. Junior sumos are not allowed to eat until their seniors have had their fill, meaning that they are often left with the dregs at the bottom of the chanko bowl. In some heyas, this can mean that cheap instant noodles are added to bulk up the remaining slop.
With a huge array of ingredients and cooking techniques employed by the different heyas across Japan, reviews over the quality of chankonabe vary enormously. Celebrity guests who have sampled the dish are overwhelmingly positive in their response. Rapper and foul-mouthed foodie Action Bronson described the soup as “better than any broth ever in the history of life.” Others, such as writer Kenji Tierney, claim that “the most authentic chanko can actually taste bad” due to the limited cookery skill of some wrestling chefs. It’s clear that the quality of a sumo’s chankonabe is down entirely to the luck of the draw.
Since sumos spend so much of their time dictated by the kitchen, many find that this is where they feel most comfortable after retiring from the ring. Though humdrum kitchen work is considered a lowly post, to be in charge of a kitchen as a “chankocho” is a highly respectable position. Years spent in a regimented kitchen environment cooking, cleaning and budgeting makes many wrestlers unofficial experts in the food industry. It’s small wonder that many ex-sumos have gone on to open their own chankonabe restaurants, where hungry lay-persons can sample a day in the dietary life of a wrestler.
In a sport defined by size, it’s unsurprising that food plays a huge part in everyday life. Though contemporary sumo wrestling is dominated by champions hailing from nations as diverse as Hawaii and Mongolia, the sumo diet remains as predictable as ever. While it sometimes proves an unsatisfactorily monotonous approach to dining, the tradition of chankonabe shows little sign of coming to end. For all the endless rice cakes and calories, anyone who’s anyone in the world of sumo has this special bowl of steaming broth to thank for their success.