Sumo Stew - How a Bowl of “Soup” Brought Together a Japanese Community in Brooklyn

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A couple years ago in Fukuoka, Japan, my wife and I witnessed the greatest live sports event we’d ever seen. I’m a huge baseball fan; I track stats, and for the most part, can accurately guess what pitch will come next. Sumo seemed so foreign; I knew about the brute strength involved, and the thunderous clap when two wrestlers collide. What I didn’t know then, is that all that power, is fortified by a bowl of soup, well, stew. Chankonabe is a one-pot dish, often chicken broth based, without a fixed recipe. It always contains large amounts of protein and vegetables, and there should be more than enough for seconds, if not thirds.

When I returned to NYC, I approached Harry Rosenblum, owner of The Brooklyn Kitchen, and fellow Japanophile, and now my partner in SUMO STEW, with an idea of spreading this newfound love of sumo. We decided to live-stream the grand tournaments from Japan, eat, drink, and cheer with every match. What started as a gathering of friends, quickly turned into an event that now boasts 150+ people strong, and fills Brooklyn Brewery.

In Ryogoku, a district of Tokyo, there are many sumo beya (stables), where rikishi (wrestlers) practice and live. It’s a fraternity of sorts; the youngest waking first to start preparing the chankonabe for the older, more experienced sumo. The neighborhood donates food to feed local athletes, investing in their wellbeing and success. I feel fortunate enough to say, that SUMO STEW has grown in a similar manner. Harry met Ruri Kippenbrock, our tenugui maker (traditional multipurpose hand dyed cotton towel), Brooklyn Botanical Garden’s Sakura Matsuri, the cherry blossom festival in Prospect Park. She’s now a fixture of our events, and has even made sumo tenugui and pins to give out as omiyage gifts to our guests. Our friend Akiko Katayama led us to Gaku Shibata at Azasu, a sumo-themed bar in the Lower East Side, and his homemade tofu has had people going back for 2nds and 3rds! I don’t even remember how Chizuko Niikawa-Helton, our resident sake samurai, came to pour the best bottle of strawberry Amabuki Junmai Ginjo "Ichigo" sake, but she’s been bringing incredible bottles since our second event, and is now returning for a fourth time.

Both Harry and I pass Phil Gilmore’s sushi restaurant, Momo Sushi Shack, on the way to tape our shows at Heritage Radio Network. When he started making chankonabe at his latest location, Moku Moku, it seemed too fortuitous not to have him contribute to SUMO STEW. A past attendee told us about Mizu shochu, and from there Jesse Falowitz introduced us to this Japanese spirit, made from fermented barley and black koji, which is refreshingly smooth – even at 70-proof. We’ve served it neat, as well as on ice with a slice of cucumber. Now we even have a shochu ambassador, Stephen Lyman, whose Shochu’s day events around town found him making drinks at our last Tuesday event. We’ve had tea importer Zach Mangan from Kettl roasting hojicha onsite, permeating the air with toasty tea scents and creating an izakaya-like ambiance in Brooklyn Brewery’s taproom. This time around, ITO-EN will be doing a live matcha demo. For the past few events, we’ve made bento boxes, composed of four little dishes donated by four chefs, who are either Japanese themselves or are inspired by Japanese ingredients. We've had Ivan Orkin of Ivan Ramen, Japantown favorite Village Yokocho, the Japanese Jewish fusion restaurant Shalom Japan, fish specialist Okonomi, local sushi spot Zenkichi, west village classic Hakata Tonton, and even an onigiri offering made of smoked bluefish and ramps from Gabe McMackin of The Finch. This time includes classics from En Japanese Brasserie, Ramen Burger, The Crimson Sparrow, Yakitori by Neal, four very different restaurants, harmoniously filling up our bento. As we end this event with cream puffs, and a “KANPAI!” shot of Nikka whisky, we’ll be cheering for two titans fighting, but what we’re really celebrating is that moment when two cultures come together.

Next round is Tuesday, 7/19, 8-11PM at Brooklyn Brewery, 79 North 11th St, Brooklyn, NY 11249.

For more info and tickets, please visit www.sumostew.com

BENTO BOX MENU:

  • Ramen Burger: Hiyashi Chuuka (cold ramen), goramen.com ***made with SUN NOODLE
  • EN Japanese Brasserie: Kinoko Kiriboshi Daikon Ohitashi (sundried daikon and assorted Japanese mushrooms in chilled dashi), enjb.com

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