Chanko nabe at Kawasaki

Friday, January 9th, 2009


Chanko nabe, the stew famed to fatten up sumo wrestlers, brings to mind steaming cauldrons filled with fish, vegetables, and all manner of ingredients. Such a concoction is more properly called yosenabe, a flavored soup into which you dump whatever’s handy. But authentic chanko nabe is based solely on chicken. Perhaps the only place in Tokyo still serving the genuine article, Kawasaki’s chanko is a delicately flavored chicken broth enriched with carrots, burdock, tofu, welsh onion, daikon, cabbage, abura-age tofu, and cellophane noodles. And the master, Tadashi Kawasaki, knows the special significance of each ingredient for the sumo wrestler, because his father, who started this restaurant some 60 years ago, was a renowned rikishi.

 The wooden, weather-worn structure is a lovely holdover from the Taisho era, but rebuilt after “1945” as Kawasaki-san tactfully put it. There are several charming tatami rooms for groups of 4 or more, but I find the plain wooden counter best, just in front of Kawasaki-san’s tiny kitchen. Most everyone orders the 4700-yen chanko course including yakitori and a salad, which is enough for two to share. But you could also just have the chanko for 2800 yen.

 The earthenware nabe with the kombu-flavored broth will be set on the portable burner in front of you. Kawasaki-san will explain what to do (in English, if necessary)—that the chicken goes in first, followed by the fresh cut vegetables, noodles, etc. The lid is put on and while it simmers, he will grill several sticks of yakitori for you. The free-range chicken from Kyushu is nothing like supermarket chicken. The flesh is firm and delicious—excellent grilled and raw. Kawasaki’s toriwasa salad—several generous hunks of chicken sashimi dressed in a sharp wasabi sauce and topped with shredded nori and chopped seri—a celery-flavored Japanese herb—is as popular as his chanko.

 Sake is tapped from the voluminous taru keg sitting near the door and served with a small dish of salt. A pinch of which you can place on the corner of your wooden masu cup to sweeten the sake.

 When the steam starts to blow from the nabe lid, Kawasaki-san will ask his wife or son to check your pot. They will let you know when it’s ready to eat. Spoon out the vegetables and meat; add, if you like, shichimi from the small red can or sansho from the green one, a bit of fresh seri, and enjoy. Once the vegetables and the last of the chicken has been eaten, you can ask for rice and egg which will be stirred into the remaining broth to make zosui, a delicious gruel. A small dish of their home-made pickles is the perfect note to finish with.

 The service here is as if from your favorite aunt—caring, congenial, and prompt. The slow, friendly Shitamachi nature of Ryogoku lives on nightly at Kawasaki. And because the chanko here is mostly vegetables, you won’t leave with a larger waistline, but you will leave as part of the extended Kawasaki family.

2-13-1 Ryogoku, Ryogoku, Sumida-ku, 03.3631.2529