This story comes to us from Abbie Fentress Swanson.
To the untrained eye, sumo may look like big fat wrestlers in underwear pushing and shoving each other around the ring. But there’s much more to the sport than meets the eye. At least 80 different techniques are used to win sumo bouts, and the pros follow strict training regimens that include weight lifting, flexibility exercises and daily practice sessions.
Professional sumo wrestlers also adhere to a rigid diet centered on a simple traditional Japanese dish: chanko-nabe. This stew is cooked in a clay pot and is made with a combination of broth, vegetables, chicken, pork, wild boar, beef, fish, seafood and tofu. Since it does not contain sugar or oil, the hot sumo soup is actually quite nutritious.
“Many people still think sumo wrestlers just eat fatty foods. However that’s not true. We eat very healthily. Rice, soup, lots of vegetables and meat. It’s a good balance,” says Yamamotoyama Ryūta, a retired pro who goes by the name Yama. At 6-foot-4 and 600 pounds, Yama is the largest Japanese wrestler the sport has ever known.
Even if chanko-nabe is made from fresh, healthy ingredients, some athletes reportedly eat huge amounts of the stew. Although the daily caloric intake for any athlete varies, Andrew Freund, an amateur wrestler and president of the US Sumo Federation, has seen sumo champions and pros eat two or three times the number of calories an average American does. That means some wrestlers are ingesting between 5,000 and 8,000 calories daily, which is like eating upwards of 33 McDonald’s hamburgers in one day.
“I can eat pretty well for an American but I can’t keep up with these guys,” says longtime sumo fan Ryan Goldstein. Goldstein’s law firm is one of the sponsors of the Sadogatake-bea, a professional sumo stable, or club, outside Tokyo
“I might have two or three small bowls of chanko-nabe and a bowl of rice or some side dishes. But they’ll sit there and eat seven, eight or nine bowls and pack in the rice. Every day they’re trying to put on weight. Their goal is to bulk up so that they can’t be moved or pushed around the ring,” Goldstein says.
There are two ways to win a sumo bout: throwing a rival down to the ground and shoving a challenger out of the ring. Heavier wrestlers are harder to move and have a better chance of staying on their feet.
In Japan, sumo tournaments are held every two weeks. Most wrestlers live, train and eat together in sumo stables. A typical day might start at 5 A.M. Wrestlers with less experience arise to practice before they prepare chanko-nabe for the higher ranked wrestlers. After the senior wrestlers finish training, the entire stable eats sumo soup together before all the wrestlers go down for a nap. Then they polish off more bowls again at dinner.
There are at least 100 different kinds of chanko-nabe and each sumo stable has its own signature stew. The Sadogatake-bea regularly serves its hot pot with chicken and cabbage in a salt broth, especially on the first day of a tournament. That’s because chickens stand on two feet, which is a winning position in sumo.
“It’s really a food that’s steeped in tradition and steeped in community because we eat it together as a team even though our wrestlers will have to fight one by one during the tournament,” says Machiko Kamatani, who runs the Sadogatake-bea with her husband.
Kamatani says even the roots of the word — “chan” means “father,” “ko” means “child,” and “nabe” means “hot pot” – point to the familial, communal aspect of the dish.
The US Sumo Federation says more and more Americans are interested in sumo. But not all of its newest converts have a taste for chanko-nabe.
Natasha Ikejiri, who has won the women’s middleweight US Sumo Open title five times, opts for peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches, Brazilian cuisine and sushi over chanko-nabe.
“It’s really filling and it’s really good but I’ve got to make sure that I’m not looking like a sumo wrestler,” Ikejiri says.
Lightweight US Sumo Open champ Jenelle Hamilton isn’t a fan either: “I’m Italian. I eat pasta.”
But Angel Castillo, who will compete in the US Sumo Open men’s lightweight category on Saturday, treats himself to the sumo soup before big tournaments.
“When you’re not eating it in concert with copious amounts of rice and beer, which is what sumo wrestlers do to gain weight, chanko-nabe can be good for any kind of competitive grappler or athlete’s diet because it’s just full of nutrients and protein and it’s really good for post-workout recovery,” Castillo says.
Read more about chanko-nabe at The Salt, a blog from the NPR Science Desk about what we eat and why we eat it.