Sumo and New York City are not words that often go together, but the food and drink sumo wrestlers consume have inspired a series of events that celebrate Japanese cuisine with the backdrop of sumo wrestling, live streamed from Japan, in an event called Sumo Stew. The next event is on May 29th at Brooklyn Kura, New York City’s first sake brewery and taproom located at Industry City, and later on July 17th at Arrogant Swine.
Back in March, we watched Japanophiles from across New York City fill the Brooklyn Kitchen in Williamsburg for the 20th iteration of Sumo Stew. Dreamed up by photographer Michael Harlan Turkell on a trip to Land of the Rising Sun years back, Sumo Stew brings together guests and vendors serving up Japanese spirits, soft drinks and other Nipponese to complement steaming bowls of chankonabe, the titular “sumo stew” prepared and eaten by wrestlers as a staple of their diet. “Nabe is stew in Japan and is consumed regularly in homes all over the country,” explained Brooklyn Kitchen founder and Sumo Stew co-founder Harry Rosenblum. “They’re eating the same thing as school children and competing at the highest level.”
Bowls of chankonabe. Photo by Clay Williams.
Though commonly bolstered with beef or shellfish, the vegetarian version cooked up by Brooklyn Brewery’s in-house chef Andrew Gerson was thick with noodles, tofu and mushrooms swimming in a rich dashi stock. Other local chefs from North Brooklyn eateries like Shalom Japan and Arrogant Swine contributed to a bento box of yuba noodle salad, dumplings and tataki beef over sesame noodles. “I think more than a deep Japanese culture [in Brooklyn], we have an incredible community of chefs who are willing to support events that move food outside the restaurant and into people’s hands and bellies in a different way,” Rosenblum said.
Photo by Clay Williams.
Attendees also got to watch those wrestlers in action via live-streamed honbasho, or professional sumo tournaments that fill stadiums across Japan six times each year. “In the west we often write it off as “fat guys running into each other.” This is so far from the truth,” Rosenblum said. In bout after bout, loin cloth-clad rikishi buffet each other with slaps, grabs and shoves in an attempt to hoist or pummel one another out of the ring.
While the bevy of rules and rituals that attend the centuries-old sport can indeed prove inscrutable to Western audiences, the extraordinary experience of watching a half-ton of human mass collide and grapple with surprising speed and technique is universal. The stifled gasps and swells of applause that filled the Brooklyn Kitchen’s cavernous kitchen space seemed to certify sumo’s cross-cultural appeal. “It’s kind of a rote learning process,” Turkell said. “So when people watch it for the first time they begin recognizing routines, then moves, then wrestlers, until they’re completely rapt.”
It definitely didn’t hurt that guests were plied with Nikka Japanese Whisky in the form a signature cocktail comprising coffee syrup and chicory-orange bitters. Beers from Asahi, sake, and shōchū, a Japanese spirit alternately distilled from rice, barley or just about anything else, also flowed freely. After all, if you’re going to eat like a sumo, you might as well drink like one too.
Or try, anyway. The sumo lifestyle is dictated by extremes, from training to partying, and a string of recent scandals have highlighted the problems invited by the lifestyle. Even so, aspiring wrestlers continue to travel to Japan from places as far afield as Egypt and Bulgaria to compete in front of a dedicated fanbase.
One of several vendors offering traditional Japanese wares. Photo by Clay Williams.
Much is rightly made of the world’s saturation in American culture and its deadening effect on those without a soft power arsenal that includes Hollywood and Coca-Cola. That said, the healthy turn-out at Sumo Stew #20 and enthusiasm for similar events elsewhere in the city stand as a testament to Americans’ appetite for non-Western cultural exports. Turkell and Rosenblum are pleasantly surprised at the attendance the event has gotten so far and are eager to bring more people into the fold. “When we started, Michael and I wanted a way to watch sumo and enjoy food with friends,” Rosenblum said, adding that he’d love to see a Sumo Stew go down in Japan. By the same token, Turkell is hoping to bring “real live Japanese Sumo” stateside, possibly before the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
As for any real sumo wrestling culture developing in the US, both co-founders are skeptical, owing in part to the complex traditions and idiosyncrasies of the sport. “I think if anything, the exercise, stretching, and strength training would certainly be a great part of a work out,” Turkell said. The diet, on the other hand, “not so much.”
But of course, all things are fine in moderation ; catch the next round of Sumo Stew on May 29th at Brooklyn Kura in Industry City and pick up advance tickets at sumostew.com
Get in touch with the author on Twitter @jonahinserra