Not long ago, while on assignment in Osaka, I had the most exuberantly revolting meal of my life. I was in a Shinto shrine that housed sumo wrestlers and my host was Konishiki (pronounced Ko-NEESH-kee), the Hawaiian-born sumo legend affectionately known as Meat Bomb. When I arrived in late morning, I was ushered up a raised platform at the end of a dim training hall. From this lofty redoubt, Konishiki and I watched a dozen fleshy wrestlers grunting through a training session. Somber and loin-clothed, the rikishi stood around a circle of hard-packed clay, smacking their thighs and stamping their bare feet as if signaling to tenants downstairs. "Sumo wrestlers don't eat until noon," Konishiki said. "They need to work up an appetite."
We were taken to a small dining room. On a long, low, wooden table, 10 soup bowls, 10 glasses, and 10 sets of chopsticks ringed an electric wok. The cook—a rikishi on kitchen duty—tossed sliced tofu, carrots, cabbages, leeks, potatoes, lotus roots, daikon radishes, shiitake mushrooms, and giant burdock into a boiling chicken broth. He was preparing chankonabe, the caloric staple of the sumo diet of sumo. "The Japanese consider chanko a nutritious food that helps make your bones denser," Konishiki says. "It's healthy, if you eat it in moderation." Of course, rikishi don't eat in moderation. They form their MoonPie-shaped sumo bodies by swilling prodigious portions, along with rice, beer, and an occasional side dish of omelets, shrimp dumplings, and fried chicken. Then they take a long nap.
Konishiki calls chanko a "sort of legal steroid." Of all the performance enhancers used in sports, it's perhaps the oldest and most venerated. Chanko dates to at least the late 19th century, when short-order cooks from Niigata prefecture fixed meals for wrestlers. The word "chan" (regional dialect for "father") was conflated with "nabe," the name for one-pot meals often served at the table. "It's the main course of a sumo meal," says Konishiki. "All the sumo wrestlers have to eat it, whether they like it or not." (Click
Sumo is a simple sport: If you force your opponent to the ground or into the rice straw that surrounds the 15-foot ring, you win. If any part of your body other than the soles of your feet touches the floor, you lose. Because bouts are generally over in a few seconds, size matters. "Sumo wrestlers depend on their weight," ex-rikishi Jesse Kuhaulua once told me. "Some have lost careers after losing weight. It's a mental thing."
To bulk up for their bimonthly tournaments, sumo wrestlers gorge on beef, chicken, or fish chanko. The wrestler Takamisugi became an immortal for downing 65 bowls of the stew—or 29 pounds of beef—in a single sitting. He stopped because his jaws got tired. Though every wrestler will tell you they owe their Jovian girth to chanko, the soup doesn't have any magical properties. The real culprit is their bottomless appetite. In his youth, Konishiki would routinely lunch on 10 bowls of chanko, eight enormous bowls of rice, 130 pieces of sushi, and 25 portions of barbecued beef. And he'd still have plenty of room for dessert.
The circumferentially enhanced Konishiki was the heftiest rikishi ever, topping out at 630 pounds. When a sumo talent scout recruited him off a Honolulu beach, he weighed a willowy 380. In Japan, the teenager was encouraged to pack it in and pack it on. "If you wanna be a rikishi, you've gotta eat chanko," says Konishiki. "You got no choice—you've gotta pay your dues." Every day his stable master would shout: "Eat chanko! Eat! Eat! Eat! The more you weigh, the harder it will be for opponents to throw you."
Since Konishiki retired from the ring in 1997, he has slimmed down to about 580, mostly thanks to a diet designed by his second wife, a 112-pound former medical worker. Still, he's not exactly laying off the chanko. "That would be tough," he says. "I like the stuff." Konishiki also serves the stuff at Unbalance, the theme restaurant he owns near the Tokyo Dome. Chanko is the most popular dish on the menu. "We offer three kinds," Konishiki reports. "The one I eat is low-cal."
In Osaka, we definitely ate high-cal. Konishiki and I sat on cushions with the stable master and seven high-ranking wrestlers, while three rookies were relegated to tatami mats in a corner. By sumo protocol, the stable master was served first, then Konishiki and the veterans. "The top guys get the best meat," Konishiki said. "The 'slaves' have to wait until we're finished, and then get what's left at the bottom of the pot." That's supposed to encourage them to get promoted fast.
An attendant brought me a heaping bowl of rice and filled my glass with beer. I handed my bowl to the cook, who ladled in the choicest morsels from the communal pot. I poked through the gray, gristly sludge, picking out the least disagreeable-looking bits. I drew a spoonful to my lips. I closed my eyes and swallowed. The bits tasted like pencil erasers soaked in chicken fat, except that pencil erasers are perhaps a little less chewy. One bowl was plenty.
"Not bad," I said politely.