When I tweet something like, “The best Indian food I’ve had in Accra,” part of me worries that I’m going off message. What about the best waakye, or the best banku and tilapia? Understandably enough, editors who commission a piece on the city rarely ask me to include somewhere with killer dosas.
Imagine, though, that I was writing about San Francisco instead of Accra. The editor might ask for a good place to get a Mission Burrito, but they might equally ask for sushi, noodle or tapas joints, and no reader would be particularly surprised or disappointed to see them included.
So how do we decide which cities can serve us global food alongside local dishes, and which we want to ‘play the classics’? When does a wide range of food become a celebrated part of a city’s identity? And if we’re suspicious of international food in a city we perceive to be less cosmopolitan, are our reasons – that it’s just a symptom of transitory expat wealth, for instance, or that it’ll rob the place of its ‘essence’, or that the food won’t be very good – always sound ones?
As I’ve written elsewhere, I started out surprised at the range of food available in Accra. That prompted a ‘local food only’ phase, which settled into a balance as the city began to feel like home. One night omo tuo, the fabulous mix of rice balls and groundnut soup. The next baba ghanoush and makanek.
If you spend enough time in a new city to find that balance, you realise that fixating on what you think is ‘the culture’ can teach you some things and blind you to others. My makanek is a sign of the Lebanese community that has been here for generations, managing racecourses, cinemas, supermarkets. My omo tuo is authentically Ghanaian, but not an Accra dish through and through. It’s actually a staple of the north.
You can miss slices of city life too. On a Sunday, just after church, you’ll often see large, well-off Ghanaian families in Dynasty in their best clothes, sharing peking duck and BBQ pork buns. That’s a minority part of Accra life, but it’s still a part. It’s still there.
I still avoid Dynasty, but now it’s for the same reason I’d avoid it back in London: there are better options. The best Chinese food in town is a few hundred yards away behind Container Bar, in a small, bare room with a sagging ceiling. I couldn’t tell you the name, the owner speaks only Mandarin, the diners are mostly Chinese, and you have to get your own beers out of the rickety fridge.
If you found it in San Francisco’s Chinatown, it’d be a solid gold travel tip.