For those who haven’t been to Japan, the first thing they should understand about Japanese food is that they probably don’t understand Japanese food. Ever since sushi restaurants became wildly popular in America starting in the 1980s, they created a false impression that Japanese food is sushi. But it is just one star in a vast constellation of culinary delights. The more recent popularity of ramen and, to some extent, udon, have widened the aperture a bit, but there is much, much more. In Japan, the daily staple—breakfast, lunch and dinner—is traditionally rice. The word for rice, gohan, is synonymous with “meal.” And not just any rice, it’s Japanese rice (the Japonica variety, some of which is grown in California), which has such a distinct, subtle flavor that it is often eaten plain with only spartan seasoning, like sesame seeds, nori flakes or perhaps a single sour plum. That rice is traditionally accompanied by a series of vegetable side dishes that include pickles and salads—cooked, and made with mature spinach, seaweed or root vegetables like burdock, daikon and carrot—with sesame seeds sprinkled on nearly everything. Then there’s a cooked protein, which traditionally is fish, but is often chicken, pork or beef. But there are countless other Japanese dishes, many of them borne out of Japan’s cross-pollination with the West following World War II, that are tough to find anywhere in America that doesn’t have a robust population of Japanese Americans (Monterey County once did—Japanese immigrants founded the local fishing industry in the late 19th century—but most didn’t return after the Japanese internment camps in the 1940s). Yet there are some of the more obscure—for Americans, at least— Japanese dishes that can be found locally. In trying them, one can start to get a sense of the range of Japanese cuisine. Ocean Sushi Deli in Monterey and Pacific Grove serves a number of such dishes, and is perhaps the only place in the county that serves natto, a fermented soybean dish with a distinctly slimy texture (like okra) that is traditionally mixed with karashi (a spicy mustard) and a sauce made from dashi, sugar and soy sauce. Mixed up and eaten atop rice, it’s a popular, quick breakfast. But it’s also polarizing—natto has a smell many 14 The Best of Monterey Bay ® EAT + DRINK 2023-2024 Oishii Yo Japanese is about more than sushi, ramen or udon. Here’s where to find some of the cuisine’s lesser-known dishes, which are no less delicious. By David Schmalz Ocean Sushi Deli Beyond Bento Daniel Dreifuss