With winter in control and showing little sign of abating, it’s time to search out warmth and sustenance of the kind that only nabemono can provide. And no heartier form of the genre exists than chanko, the hotpot that has nourished generations of sumo wrestlers.
So gather up a posse of stalwart henchmen and head across the Sumida River to Ryogoku. Here, in sumo heartland, you will find chanko restaurants on virtually every corner. For aficionados, though, there is only one place that truly matters: Kawasaki is not just the oldest and proudest such establishment, many rate its nabe as the best in the neighborhood.
The very sight of Kawasaki’s handsome wooden facade is enough to inspire confidence. Established in 1937 (but rebuilt after the war, in 1949), this is one of the few low-rise buildings surviving in Ryogoku, a classic example of traditional shitamachi architecture. Its charm derives not from refinement, but its simple, lived-in homeliness. This is also true of the provender prepared by veteran owner Tadashi Kawasaki (the son of the founder, former wrestler Yokoteyama), who welcomes you from his open kitchen.
There are no hard and fast rules about what ingredients should go into the chanko pot. Like the various sumo stables, each restaurant favors its own style. Kawasaki-san has always featured chicken and assorted vegetables in his nabe, cooked in a rich chicken broth. “In the old days, all the wrestlers used to eat was fish and vegetables,” he explains. “These days they have sponsors and they can have anything they like. But back then chicken was special — they would only eat it before a tournament, or in celebration.”
Kawasaki also offers a number of chicken-based side dishes. You can pick and choose which of these you want with your nabe from the simple a la carte menu. But the easiest procedure is to order the all-in chanko course, which will give you a taste of everything. Your only choice will be what to drink — and the options are either beer (Ichiban Shibori in bottles), atsukan (warm sake) or reishu, a wonderful, fragrant Nada taruzake drawn from the massive ceremonial cedar-wood cask that sits in the center of the restaurant.
While you nibble on starters (crunchy daikon pickles; a dab of dark, sticky name-miso), the young serving crew will set up a well-patinated earthenware casserole on top of a battered enamel gas ring that has seen long and valorous service. They will also attend to everything, putting in the nabe ingredients and adjusting the flame until they pronounce that all is ready to be scooped out and eaten.
Kawasaki-san not only oversees everything and everyone as they come and go, he is also in charge of the small grill on which he prepares sticks of delectable yakitori. There are small patties of tsukune mince; chunks of white breast meat; and a selection of internal organs (chewy heart, soft liver, crunchy gizzard). He also doles out portions of basic chicken salad, and tori-wasa, rare chicken lightly flavored with piquante wasabi.
But these are just preludes. Obviously, the centerpiece of the evening is the nabe, and it is excellent. There are plenty of vegetables to complement the chunks of chicken, but you don’t get huge mounds of chopped cabbage (too often served as filler elsewhere). There is no need for extra seasoning beyond a sprinkle of seven-spice or green-gray sansho pepper. And if you have any of that rich, flavorful broth left, you can order a couple of bowls of rice and prepare ojiya porridge, topped with a light yellow layer of soft-cooked egg. You will leave Kawasaki warmed and replete, but not overstuffed. This is chanko that satiates the spirit, not just the belly.
One caveat: Kawasaki only accepts reservations from parties of four or more, for tables in one of the tatami rooms. For everyone else, it is first come first served at the seven counter seats in front of the kitchen. That means you either have to be there, ready to eat, when they hang out the noren at 5 p.m.; be prepared to wait in line; or chance your luck that a place will free up later in the evening (try arriving at around 8:30 p.m.). But the advantage of sitting at the counter is that not only do you get to see the food being made, you get to chat with the ever-personable Kawasaki-san. Kawasaki, 2-13-1 Ryogoku, Sumida-ku; tel: (03) 3631-2529. Open: Mon.-Sat. 5-10 p.m.; closed Sunday and holidays. Chanko nabe from 2,800 yen, course 4,800 yen.
If Kawasaki offers a time-slip to a gentler, simpler era of chanko dining, then Tomoegata presents the full-on visceral pleasures of sumo gourmandizing in the present tense. Named for the legendary yokozuna who founded it (and now run by his son), Tomoegata combines a traditional ambience — sumo memorabilia, banners emblazoned with the names of famous wrestlers, low ceilings and plenty of woodwork — with belly-filling fare.
Here you have a choice of four kinds of chanko — beef in clear broth; fish and vegetables in miso-flavored soup; a mixed hotpot with soy-seasoned broth; and mizutaki (served with a ponzu vinegar dip) — plus a range of side dishes to complement the nabe. They also boast a small selection of quality jizake from smaller, regional sake houses such as the tasty Yume no Kobo from Hatsumago, in Yamagata.
Tomoegata has table seating as well as tatami and a small counter. It is also just staggering distance from Ryogoku Station, which is probably why it remains one of the most popular chanko establishments in the area. Tomoegata, 2-17-6 Ryogoku, Sumida-ku; tel: (03) 3632-5600; tomoegata.com Open: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Chanko nabe from 2,800 yen.
The sumo connection is even stronger at Yoshiba, a brief walk north of the sumo stadium. Here you dine inside an actual sumo stable (the former Miyagi-beya) where yokozuna Yoshibayama, the sumo heart-throb of the early 1950s, once strutted his formidable stuff.
The building itself looks like a provincial hot spring, but inside is even more remarkable, with the tables arranged around the packed clay of an actual dohyo training ring. This is the place to bring out-of-towners with a sumo fetish.
The food is cheerful and unsubtle. But where else can you sip your sake and watch your chanko nabe bubble, while the sound of massive flesh hitting hard-packed clay still seems to echo in the rafters. This is the stuff that warms the cockles, puts hairs on your chest and pads those essential subcutaneous layers.