- What is chanko nabe?
- Who was Shinzan?
- What is Chanko Shinzan like?
- How was Chanko Shinzan’s chanko nabe?
What is chanko nabe?
Have you ever wondered how sumo wrestlers, known as “rikishi” in Japan, can be so huge and yet be able to display such power in sumo bouts? It all comes down to diet – food that is extremely rich in fat and protein, but low in starches and sugar. This is what “chanko nabe” (“ちゃんこ鍋”) is all about, a dish that sumo fighters consume on a regular basis, in order to quickly gain weight in order to be more competitive.
“Nabe” is a Japanese hot pot dish: meat and vegetables are stewed in “dashi” (Japanese soup stock), inside a “donabe” (an earthenware pot). The pot is placed on a portable stove, so everything is cooked in front of your eyes. When the ingredients are ready, you can just use your chopsticks to help yourself – however you shouldn’t eat directly from the pot, but instead place the ingredients into the provided small bowl.
If you are familiar with shabu shabu, you’ll find yourself at home with “chanko nabe”. However, there are two main differences. First, the soup stock is usually chicken based. Next, the meat is stewed in the pot for a longer time, rather than “swished” for a few seconds as for shabu shabu. Apart from that, there is no fixed recipe for “chanko nabe”, and the meat can be anything from fish to beef. That being said, chicken meat is used when feeding a sumo fighter during a tournament; the idea being that, like a chicken, they need to stand on two feet and not all fours!
Who was Shinzan?
When a sumo fighter retires, they sometimes start a second career by opening a “chanko nabe” restaurant, usually in the vicinity of the “kokugikan” (国技館) or sumo stadium in Ryogoku. The first such restaurant to open was Kawasaki Chanko in 1937. Occasionally they will choose another neighbourhood in Tokyo, and as a result there are famous “chanko nabe” restaurants all over Tokyo, including Arakicho in the center of Shinjuku.
Arakicho’s only “chanko nabe” restaurant Chanko Shinzan ちゃんこ心山, was opened by the retired wrestler Shinzan Takeyasu (心山 丈康). Born in Aomori prefecture in 1950, he joined the Takashima stable and participated in his first tournament at the age of 15 and his last one when he was 31. His highest rank was the Makushita division.
The “makushita” division (“under the curtain” 幕下) is the third highest sumo division, below “makuuchi” (the top division, “inside the curtain” 幕内), and “juryo” (the 2nd highest division 十両). As a sumo wrestler in the “makushita” division, Shinzan received only a small monthly allowance, and did the chores for the higher ranked wrestlers in the same stable. This included making “chanko nabe” on a daily basis, something he became extremely good at during his sixteen-year career, thus enabling him to open his own restaurant after retiring.
What is Chanko Shinzan like?
Shinzan is located on the second floor of a charming narrow paved alley (featured on the cover of the 2018 autumn edition of the gourmet magazine shokuraku) that branches off to the left halfway down Sharikimon Dori street. It’s pretty hard to find, so you’ll definitely need Google Maps to track it down. Or a local who knows their way around – Shigenobu-san was waiting for me at the corner so that I wouldn’t get lost. I almost walked straight past him in the dark!
Another thing you’ll definitely need is an advance reservation. Shinzan is extremely popular and is known to be frequented by people working in the media, and even celebrities – partly because they serve excellent food, partly because it’s feels secret and hidden, so it’s a good place to quitely discuss the latest hot topics. On one side of the restaurant, you’ll notice a huge collection of half-full half-empty shochu bottles, with various names written with felt pen. This is the Japanese bottle-keep system – the restaurant will hold on to your bottle till your next visit.
Shinzan is also a relatively small-size restaurant, like most establishments in the Arakicho area. It consists of just one rectangular-shaped room, with a row of tables along the long side, and a short counter area, seating less than 20 people in total. If you don’t speak any Japanese, you can ask your hotel to make a reservation for you since no English is spoken – in fact they don’t even have a website, nor any social media presence.
Shinzan passed away a few years ago, so the place is now run by his wife and his former disciple (“deshi” 弟子). The day of our visit, we were the sole customers, which was fortunate for us, since we could talk with them about sumo and “chanko nabe”, till both our curiosity and our appetites were satisfied! Since “nabe” is a dish that is typically eaten in the winter, expect the place to be packed in the colder months. Smoking is allowed so if you sensitive to smoke, consider visiting on a weekday during the summer – you may get the place to yourselves like we did.
How was Chanko Shinzan’s chanko nabe?
Before we got started on the main course, we had with two recommended starters to help us wait while the “nabe” was stewing at our table. First was “minced wagyu (Japanese beef)” (和牛たたき 1500 yen) – strictly speaking, the beef wasn’t thinly minced, but cut into bite-sized chunks, among slices of onion and crispy garlic chips. Wagyu is always a treat so it was the ideal starter. We also had some very tasty and big-sized “tebasaki”, or Japanese-style fried chicken wings (手羽先).
You can choose between five different kinds of soup stocks for your “chanko nabe”:
- – CURRY (“kare” カレー about 2600 yen)
- – KIMUCHI (キムチ about 2400 yen)
- – MISO (味噌 about 2160 yen)
- – SALT (“shio” 塩 about 2160 yen)
- – SHOYU (醤油 2160 yen).
They are written on a blackboard sign above the counter, from left to right. This is one of the attractions of Shinzan – as I mentioned before “chanko nabe” uses chicken soup stock, but at Shinzan you can enjoy different kinds of flavours. If you are in a group of three or more, you’ll have to take the course menu (5000 yen) which includes a number of other dishes. Since the curry one is Shinzan’s unique creation, and by far their most popular item, we immediately decided to go for that. In addition to the usual nabe ingredients such as cabbage, spring onion, fried tofu and mushrooms, it also used big slices of pork.
After stewing for a while and giving it a good stir, our chanko nabe was ready to be devoured. And devour we did. Having not grown up on eating nabe, like most Japanese do, I have to admit that the thought of eating it, doesn’t automatically make my mouth water (like a pizza would). However once you start eating, it’s hard to stop – the taste is just that satisfying. At a pace that would make a sumo fighter proud. We cleaned out the huge pot.
Once you have finished all the ingredients, it’s usual to use the leftover soup to make something called “zosui”, a kind of Japanese gruel (雑炊), by adding some udon noodles. This is optional and the restaurant staff will ask you whether or not you’d like to do this. However we both felt very full by then, and since we weren’t aspiring to start a career as sumo fighters anytime in the near future, we both politely declined.
Before you leave, make sure to check out the rather big decoration hanging from the ceiling (in the far corner above all the shochu bottles). This is called a “kumade” (熊手) or a Japanese bamboo rake (although it doesn’t really look like a rake). It is bought by businesses every year in November during the “tori no ichi” festival (酉の市) to ensure good fortune for the following year – the idea is that it enables you to “rake in the good luck”.
Read more about Sumo and “chanko nabe” on the Tadaima Japan website:
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