Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Helmand, an Afghan restaurant in Cambridge, MA.


Afghan restaurants have always been around in the United States, though they have never received the widespread attention that Indian restaurants have, instead enjoying an exotic popularity amongst a small crowd.  Helmand sits in a quiet block off of the Galleria mall near Kendall square in Cambridge.  On Friday night, I flew in from DC and M drove up from Westchester.  We then left our tiredness behind and stepped into this attractive restaurant after a bracing and brief walk in weather that had been long overdue after a brutal winter.  The restaurant was packed.  Our table for two was squeezed between two others, and we were an array of three pairs of couples on three parallel tables that symbolically represented the passage of life.  The couple to our left appeared to be students in their mid twenties, likely on a first date, speaking @ 60 words per minute, extensively making use of the word “like”, often simply as a momentum booster to the conversation like a little conversational whip to keep the dialogue going.  We, middle-aged, spoke at around 10-15 words per minute.  And the septuagenarian couple to our right kept largely silent, pulling along @ ~ 1 word per minute.

Regardless of age or vocal temperament, the Afghan food indoctrinated us all, and there appeared to be contentment across all three tables.  We shared two soups—The Shorwa, with chunks of softened lamb, a light nourishing stock, black eyed peas and pieces of carrots, turnips and beans; and the Mashawa, a slightly more viscous lamb stock soup thickened by yogurt, slightly tangy, and with chickpeas in it.  For an appetizer, we had Kaddo, pulverized sweetish baked pumpkin paste with minced beef on top.  You had it with Afghan flatbread (similar to Naan), cooked on the hot surfaces of a clay, or mud oven.  The sweet-saltish taste of the Kaddo is unexpectedly interesting and very different from Indian food.  As main entrée we shared a Chowpan, or the rack of lamb on a bed of pallow rice and sautéed eggplants.  Pallow is the Afghan variant from the Indian pulao, though the Afghan version is closer to the Persian, with the use of saffron and the slightly drier texture of the rice.  Compared to Indian dishes, this is a parallel universe of equivalents: similar sounding names with some variation in preparation—the dwopiaza/dopiaza, banjan/baigan (eggplant), bendi/bhendi (okra), and so on and so forth. Compared to Indian cooking, Afghan food is less spiced, more grilled, and with more liberal use of fruit and nuts.  I feel the food allows the taste of the meats and the vegetable to come through better.  The rack of lamb was as rack of lamb is in all cultures.  Regardless of its accoutrements, it is at the end the quality of the meat and when it is taken off of the heat that matters, and in that regard Helmand came through with flying colors.
We ended our meals with sheerekh, homemade Afghan ice cream with a flavor of saffron and pistachio and decorated with figs and nuts. 

Helmand was impressive and there is good reason that late into the night it remained filled with diners.  Our hotel concierge, when asked for directions to Helmand, informed us that she had never heard anything bad about the place.  I will not provide an exception to that.

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