TOKYO - "It's ready! Let's start serving it," Satomi Sotogaki, 36, of Ageo, Saitama prefecture, told her 11-year-old daughter one late December evening, as she carried a nabe stew pot to the living room.
That day's recipe aimed to reflect Japanese tastes. Ms Sotogaki had already lined the bottom of the pot with hakusai Chinese cabbage and pork slices. She and her daughter then began placing small figures of cats, chicks and other animals made with grated daikon radish into the pot. A whole daikon had been used in the process.
The nabe dish, whose theme was "animal friends in the winter forest", featured a variety of colourful and cute animal figures.
Known as "deco nabe", the decorative art of making animal figures from grated daikon and drawing faces on vegetables to decorate nabe stews has been growing in popularity. The dish is easy to cook and makes an excellent conversation piece for family members and friends, warming both body and soul throughout the course of meal preparation and dining.
"How did you make the chicks yellow?" Ms Sotogaki's daughter asked curiously.
According to Ms Sotogaki, grated daikon can be coloured by mixing it with ingredients in intense hues. She used turmeric for yellow, ground black sesame for black and grated radish for pink. To make the eyes and mouths of the animals, she cut a sheet of nori into tiny pieces and affixed them to the figures.
"After the grated daikon is drained, you can sculpt it however you like. It's just like moulding clay," she said. "Except it breaks down and dissolves when you add broth and heat it up," she added, smiling.
"After I started making deco nabe, my daughter became interested in cooking," she explained. "She often asks me what vegetables are in season."
Ms Sotogaki took up the culinary art form, after learning of its popularity online. She has posted her own deco nabe works on Cookpad, a recipe-sharing website.
According to a Cookpad publicist, the boom started in the winter of 2013. A man in his 30s in Tokyo - a company employee who went by the alias of Kimimarokku - posted on Twitter a snapshot of a nabe dish topped with a polar bear made from grated daikon. The photo instantly became a hot topic among home cooking aficionados, igniting the deco nabe trend. Since then, various other deco nabe recipes have emerged on the Cookpad site.
"I happened to chance upon the idea of deco nabe when I was brainstorming ways to celebrate my friend's birthday," Kimimarokku said. "I never expected it would become so popular. I'm happy it's putting more people in the mood for nabe stew."
In response to the boom, magazine publisher Shufunotomo has launched Daikon Oroshi Art (The Art Of Grated Daikon), which offers an introduction to making figures out of grated daikon for deco nabe and other dishes. The book includes colour photos of Kimimarokku's dishes and others that have appeared on social media sites.
Taking advantage of the deco nabe boom, major food manufacturing company Kagome started selling nabe soups in Western flavours targeting children last year. The firm also began providing how-to guides on deco nabe on its website.
One recipe suggests serving a bear figure with tomato and small rabbit figures with sausages alongside its tomato or vegetable potage soups.
The company said it has received letters from some highly satisfied customers saying that their children did not like vegetables, but they ate lots of them thanks to deco nabe. Others wrote that their families enjoyed preparing the meal.
"Deco nabe is easy to make. It also allows families to have fun dining together and eat lots of vegetables. That's why it's so popular," said a publicist of the company. "When you decorate your nabe, I suggest you select ingredients that complement the flavour of the soup or broth."