The rules of sumo are simple. If any part of your body touches the ground except the soles of your feet, or you step or fall outside the straw perimeter of the dohyo (ring), you lose. The only off-limits moves are closed-fist punching, eye poking, and crotch grabbing. Everything else is fair game. Expect to see a lot of pushing, throws, slapping, force-outs, leg sweeps, and the occasional body slam.
To train for this, wrestlers start at dawn on an empty stomach, with an hour of side stomps, or shiko. Wrestlers squat, lift one leg to the side as high as they can, and stomp down—150 to 300 times. They train full splits as well as proper tumbling technique. “You have to be able to twist and move in a small space,” says Andrew Freund, director of USA Sumo. In major tournaments, the clay ring sits atop a platform, so getting shoved off ends with a two-foot drop to the floor. “If you’re stiff like a bodybuilder, you’ll get injured,” Freund says.
After that come calisthenics and speed work to build explosive power, and technique drills. The heart of the workouts is sparring. It’s quiet—no music, no chatter among the wrestlers, just grunting and the slapping sound of flesh on flesh. Finally comes butsukari. It’s similar to training with a blocking sled in football. One wrestler stands tall while another slams into him, pushing to the edge of the ring. This is done to exhaustion.
All that burns a lot of calories, which get replaced by a traditional meal of sumo stew called chanko-nabe (see recipe, below). It’s made in gigantic quantities by junior members of the heya. Every component is athletic fuel. The broth—which can be made from fish, pork, beef, or chicken—contains electrolytes, which help with hydration and cell function. There’s clean protein from things like chicken balls, prawns, and soft-boiled eggs, for building muscle. Noodles contain energy-replacing carbohydrates, and vegetables and spices offer vitamins, minerals, and anti-inflammatory compounds.
Wrestlers have their own recipe. The pro athletes eat several big bowls of chanko, along with a ton of rice and beer. A long nap follows, then additional training and team meetings. Cap the day with more chanko and rice, then it’s time for bed. Read the full feature on sumo wrestling’s healthy secrets.
This stew is a complete and balanced meal, perfect for athletes. All the components can be found in an Asian supermarket. Experiment with ingredients, too. “Use good chickens, seasonal vegetables, and fish bones so nothing is wasted,” says chef Shaun King, at Momofuku Las Vegas. Chanko can be made days in advance and frozen; just wait until serving to add delicate vegetables and aromatics, like seaweed and chili oil, King says.
Recipe courtesy of Shaun King, executive chef at Momofuku Las Vegas
- 11⁄2 cups dried bonito flflakes
- 4 tbsp low-sodium soy sauce
- 4 tbsp sake
- 4 tbsp mirin
- 11⁄2 tsp salt, divided
- 1 package harusame cellophane bean thread noodles (can substitute udon)
- 1⁄2 lb ground chicken thighs
- 1⁄2 cup chopped green onion
- 1 tsp freshly grated ginger
- 1⁄2 head napa cabbage, cut in 2-inch ribbons
- 2 Naganegi onions, cut diagonally (can substitute with leeks)
- 1 bunch Kikuna leaves, cut 2 inches long
- 1 package firm tofu, cut in 1-inch cubes
- 1 3.5-oz package shimeji mushrooms
- 1 3.5-oz package enoki mushrooms
- 1 large carrot, sliced thinly, circles cut using a flower-shaped cookie cutter
- Optional Toppings:
- Chili oil
- Fish cakes
- Head-on prawns
- Daikon sprouts
- Bok choi
- Kale, seaweed, or other greens
- Soft-boiled eggs
How to make it
In large pot, boil bonito flakes in 4 cups water to make dashi (fish broth), and simmer 2 to 3 minutes; strain flakes. Add soy sauce, sake, mirin, and 1 tsp salt, then turn heat to low. In a small pan, boil water and rehydrate noodles, 4 minutes; strain and set aside.
In a medium bowl, combine chicken, remaining 1⁄2 tsp salt, green onion, and ginger; form mixture into 1-tbsp balls and drop in dashi-soy broth. Add cabbage, naganegi onions, Kikuna leaves, tofu, mushrooms, and carrots, and cook until vegetables are tender and chicken balls are cooked through, 10 to 15 minutes. Add noodles, desired toppings, and serve.