Have you ever envied the physique of a sumo wrestler? Who hasn’t? Sumo wrestlers can not only intimidate with their girth alone, but are also revered as celebrities in Japan because of their weight. (Or rather, how they use their weight.)
And like celebrities everywhere, there’s fascination with every aspect of their lives: what they wear, who they date, what they eat. But with sumo wrestlers, it’s the reverse of what we might ask about western celebrities. Instead of asking “what does he eat to stay so thin?” you might ask yourself “what does he eat to get so big?”
Sumo wrestlers live in houses (called stables) with one another where everything is extremely regimented. Not only are there the daily workouts to build up the brute strength of the sumo wrestler, but there are tons of other aspects to sumo life that are pretty routine too.
Part of the routine is the sumo diet. Unlike most other forms of wrestling or boxing, there aren’t any weight divisions in sumo wrestling. Because of that, sumo wrestlers pretty much want to be as big as humanly possible so they can use their weight to push around opponents.
But you can’t gain a whole lot of weight on the traditional Japanese diet, so to bulk up, sumo wrestlers eat their own special type of food. It’s called chankonabe. Chankonabe is essentially a stew served in a giant pot (nabe means pot) and is a staple of the sumo wrestler diet.
What Makes Chankonabe?
The unique thing about chankonabe is that there isn’t really a set recipe. Chankonabe changes depending what sumo stable you’re in, what the cook has on hand, and what the wrestlers like to eat. There are a few rules of thumb to making chankonabe: it has to have a ton of protein (tofu, chicken, fish, beef), and lots of veggies. Everything else – what kind of veggies, broth, meat – is completely up to the cook (or the most senior wrestler).
Some wrestlers have superstitions about what kind of meat to use. Fish and cows can be considered bad luck because unlike chicken, they don’t stand on two feet like a good sumo wrestler should. That’s why at many sumo tournaments, chicken is the only choice of meat when it comes to chankonabe.
Chankonabe is sometimes served precooked, but often it’s brought to the table along with a hot plate and a bunch of ingredients for you to cook yourself, shabu shabu style.
Putting on the Pounds
But it takes more than just a special diet to gain the kind of weight that sumo wrestlers put on. In order for them to pack on the weight, they’ve got to go above and beyond. There are several little tricks that sumo wrestlers use to assure that they put on (and keep on) those pounds (or kilograms).
Sumo wrestlers do things like exercising on an empty stomach and sleeping after eating in order to keep on the fat. Whether these old traditions have any scientific basis is a bit dubious, but it’s still very much a part of the sumo wrestler routine as much as their morning exercises and junior sumo wrestlers doing chores for their elders.
After a sumo wrestler’s career ends, it can be tough to start a new one. After all, if the only thing on your résumé is “can push dudes around real good,” then you might not be the most employable person in the world.
Fortunately, chankonabe is so awesome and delicious that many former sumo wrestlers can earn a living off of making the stew. Lots of former sumo wrestlers open up restaurants that specialize in chankonabe because after all, they’ve had years of experience making the stuff.
These restaurants are usually around the Ryogoku area of Tokyo, the Mecca of sumo wrestling. Ryogoku not only has sumo restaurants, but tons of sumo stables and a huge sumo stadium.