Japan is a country of extremes -- nothing is sufficient until it is perfected to the nth degree. It is the home of geisha, bonsai trees, tea ceremonies, ninja, eating contest champions, harajuku girls, and -- of course -- sumo wrestling. You'd think that being as large as they are, rikishi (literally "strong man," as the wrestlers are collectively known) would maintain a diet similar to six-time hot dog eating champion Takeru Kobayashi, but remarkably, the sumo diet is remarkably healthy and low in fat. In fact, despite being what medical professionals would call morbidly obese, rikishi have a very low occurrence of obesity-related illness such as heart disease, diabetes, and high cholesterol due to the placement of their fat. Thanks to a disciplined regimen of intense exercise paired with high-volume consumption of high-protein foods, most of their fat is subcutaneous, lying just under the skin. Compare that to visceral fat which is located inside the abdomen and often infiltrates the internal organs. This is the same phenomenon that causes even your fittest of friends to have cellulite deposits and some outwardly skinny people to suffer from hypertension or high cholesterol.
So what do these big boys eat? Since they live together in heya (literally "stables," or training establishments), chanko nabe is an efficient means to provide a healthy, high-protein meal in immense volumes. A stew made with a protein and plenty of vegetables, chanko nabe is prepared in a communal hot-pot style, with a base broth simmering in the center of the table and ingredients added as they are needed. Generally, the protein used is pork, chicken, or fish, although some heya believe it's bad luck to use four-legged animals (symbolizing being down on all fours) or fish (no hands or feet), so chicken is the only allowable meat.
Seeing as how we had no upcoming sumo matches planned, we tried chanko nabe miso-aji (miso-based) using thinly sliced pork belly and an assortment of vegetables. For a true hot pot experience, serve it with hot rice and individual bowls of ponzu for dipping the meat and veggies.
- 2-1/2 tsp. dashi powder
- 1 lb. thinly sliced pork belly
- 3 tbsp. sake
- 2 tbsp. mirin
- 4 tbsp. aka (red) miso
- 4 tbsp. shiro (white) miso
- 1 medium carrot, peeled, sliced crosswise on the diagonal, and blanched
- 2" piece of daikon, peeled, halved lengthwise, sliced crosswise, and blanched
- 1 medium Yukon Gold potato, peeled, halved lengthwise, sliced crosswise, and blanched
- 10 oz. firm tofu, cut into 2" cubes
- 8 shiitake mushrooms, stems removed, caps halved (or dried shiitakes, soaked in warm water until soft)
- 1 2.8-oz. package abura-age, cut into 1-1/2" pieces
- 1/4 head nappa cabbage, cored, and cut into large pieces
- 1 bunch spinach, washed well, ends removed
- 1 bunch nira (Chinese flat chives), cut in thirds
- Optional: cooked white rice or cooked udon noodles, and 2 eggs, lightly beaten
- Ponzu, for serving
- Bring 10 c. water to a boil in a large pot over high heat. Reduce heat to medium,and stir in dashi powder until dissolved. Add pork, sake, and mirin and simmer until pork is cooked through. Skim off any foam that rises to the surface. Pour 1 c. cooking liquid into a separate bowl, and use it to dissolve the miso. Then, pour it back into the larger pot and stir.
- Set up a portable stove on the dining table, and place the pot on the burner. Assemble all remaining ingredients on a large plate on the table. Add the carrots, daikon, and potato, and simmer for about 10 minutes. Add the onions, tofu, mushrooms, abura-age, cabbage, spinach, and chives, in that order, until vegetables are just soft, about 5 minutes more.
- To serve, ladle meat, vegetables, and broth into individual bowls. Dip meat and vegetables into ponzu to eat. When all meat and vegetables have been eaten, pour broth over rice (to eat as a porridge), or add udon noodles to the broth and cook until al dente, and stir in eggs until just cooked through. Ladle noodles, eggs, and broth into individual bowls.
Adapted from Saveur