Sunday, 16 June 2024

Foodie Freak: Chankonabe, the Sumo wrestler's stew



I don’t like sports, never have. When other kids were watching the football game or playing catch, I was reading nature books or planting roses. When most guys are watching “The big game” I have no idea who’s playing. I couldn’t tell you what a linebacker does or how many points a basketball makes when it drops through the hoop. Sports are just not my thing.

Now I’m guessing that more than one woman reading this will share the sentiment that my wife has about this: “He cooks AND doesn’t like sports! What a catch!” Swoon away at the idea ladies, but I’m not a handsome man so there’s a give and take here.

The one exception to my sports aversion is Sumo wrestling. I could watch Sumo basho (tournaments) all day long, not that they are readily available here. It’s got pageantry, mythology and superstitions, and the lifetime of training to be the best. Maybe since I’m a large, round guy myself, Sumo gives me the enjoyable knowledge that I’m petite when compared to most of these wrestlers.

Why would I be talking about Sumo wrestlers in a food column? Sometimes I can get sidetracked while trying to make my point. My daughter was recently very ill and after several of weeks of not being able to hold any food down she lost 6 pounds of body weight and her blood iron level was very low. I decided the best way to get her back into shape is to feed her Sumo food, food that really satisfies these big guys. When she could finally eat I made her a big bowl of chankonabe.

Chakonabe is a traditional Sumo wrestler’s stew. The really fun thing about chankonabe is that there isn’t actually a single traditional recipe for it, so it can be pretty much whatever you want it to be. You take a broth and then just chuck a bunch of stuff in it.

The point of the soup is that it be heavy in proteins so the wrestlers could bulk up. The thing that westerners can really love about it is that it’s not like most Japanese soups that are so light and ethereal that they have the flavor of angels’ tears with a hint of eel. Chankonabe is hearty and full of flavor.

Chicken is the favorite meat for chankonabe because chickens stand on two legs, and a Sumo wrestler strives to stay standing on two legs during a match. Cows and pigs stand on four legs and if that happens to a wrestler he has lost the match. So just out of the superstition, chicken is the most common meat although fish, pork, beef and horse are still popular.

Now I can hear you wondering, how can chankonabe be good for you? Have you seen how fat those Sumo wrestlers are? Actually chankonabe is high in protein but low in fat, so it is a good, wholesome food. What helps the wrestlers bulk up is that they don’t eat breakfast at all. They get up and start their work out then they eat several bowls full of chankonabe for lunch and take a nap.

I’ve included the “recipe” of the chankonabe that I made for my daughter most recently, and while it has Asian influences it’s a pretty western tasting stew. This could easily be a vegetarian dish and still just as filling.

In the version I made I used equal parts bonito stock for authenticity and chicken stock for familiarity. You can use any stock or combination that you would like; for instance, vegetable stock and mushroom stock, and then you could add sliced portabellas to the pot.

I occasionally make a vegetarian chankonabe with lentil stock, squash, mushrooms, udon noodles, broccoli, etc. Miso paste is also a common addition to chankonabe and would be a great addition to a vegetarian mushroom chankonabe. I also used bison meat since it is very high in protein and iron and those are what my daughter needed at the time. That’s the great thing about chankonabe, it is what ever you want it to be.

Bok choy (there are different spellings) is an Asian cabbage that has become hugely popular in recent years. You can translate the name loosely being “bok” white, and “choy” meaning vegetable. Bok choy is a very popular vegetable throughout the world since it is low in calories, has no fat or cholesterol but is high in calcium, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, and Vitamins A and C.

Bok choy is also very mild flavored and doesn’t overwhelm anything that it is cooked with. It gives nutrition, color and texture to most dishes. The greens shrink when heated like spinach does, so add more than you think you will need to a dish. I actually sneak bok choy into many foods like tuna salad just to make them more nutritious.

Most local grocery stores not only carry fully grown bok choy but also baby bok choy. This makes me laugh because baby bok choy is more expensive than the fully grown bok choy ... how does that work?

Bok choy is a lot like leeks in that it should be washed well before eating. The leaves hang on to dirt pretty well and the bases of the stalks also hang on to a good amount of grit.

I like to cut of the base of the bok choy and toss it in the compost pile and then chop the entire head. Then throw all of it into a large bowl or sink filled with water and mix well so the sand can fall away. Throw into the salad spinner and you’re done.

If you don’t have a salad spinner you can put all of the greens into a large cotton kitchen towel or pillow case, pick it up by the corners then go out side and swing it around for a minute and let centrifugal force dry the greens off.

If you don’t care for bok choy you can use many other greens like spinach or napa cabbage, and even broccoli would work well.

By the way, my daughter is much better now.


1 pound bison, cubed (optional)

1 pound chicken, cubed

4 cups bok choy stalks and leaves, finely sliced

2 cups bonito stock

2 cups chicken stock

1 block firm tofu, cubed

1 package udon noodles

1 onion, julienned

one-quarter cup sake

2 tablespoons soy sauce

Drops of sesame oil

Vegetable oil or butter

In a two-quart stock pot brown the chicken and bison in oil or butter in small batches and set aside while browning another batch.

Once all of the meat is browned deglaze the pan with the sake (vodka or wine would also work) and when the bottom of the pan is clean add the bok choy and stir it a few times. It will reduce by two thirds quite quickly, much like spinach.

Add all of the other ingredients and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer until everything is cooked through. Serve.

Ross A. Christensen is an award-winning gardener and gourmet cook. He is the author of "Sushi A to Z, The Ultimate Guide" and is currently working on a new book. He has been a public speaker for many years and enjoys being involved in the community.

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