The Menus of Madison County: The Helmand

Jen Lauro

I found myself in Cambridge, MA a few weekends ago and clearly wanted to sample some of the culinary favorites in this academic town outside of Boston. I asked my host to pick out a favorite restaurant, and I was intrigued when I found out his choice was an Afghani place. My closest encounter with this central Asian cuisine was with men peddling kabobs on 3rd Avenue in New York City. However, never one to shy away from new food, I gladly anticipated this meal that I knew would include succulent roasted meats and chewy flatbread. The Helmand Restaurant (143 First Street, Cambridge, MA) certainly set a high bar for any other Afghani food I may sample in the future.

Named after the province in southwestern Afghanistan, The Helmand is located under a green awning in a very residential neighborhood in Cambridge. We walked into a buzzing, open restaurant filled with a cozy fireplace and colorful woven rugs. A huge oven stationed itself by the door, turning out huge pieces of flatbread. I wanted to leap across the counter and snatch one.

We were seated in a table in the back, next to part of The Helmand’s extensive wine collection. My more experienced dining companion guided us through a menu that was succinct, but filled with dishes I had never before seen. As we finalized our ordering plans, our jovial waiter brought over a basket of delicious homemade flatbread, warm from the oven, with a basket of condiments that included a white yogurt sauce, a green sauce that tasted of cilantro and something red that was a bit too hot for my taste.

The appetizers arrived in ready-to-share dishes. Our host insisted we order the kaddo, which was baked baby pumpkin seasoned with sugar and served on a yogurt garlic sauce, topped with a sauce of ground beef. Pumpkin? Sugar? Garlic? Beef? On paper, this combination could not sound less appealing to me. But, with an open mind and an open mouth, I tried the kaddo and was amazed. The familiar combination of pumpkin and sugar was smooth, sweet, and tasted vaguely of pumpkin pie. This initial taste was followed by a creamy yogurt sauce that was lightly flavored with tangy garlic, and then small bits of ground beef that added texture and smokiness to the final bite. Though we also enjoyed the banjan (baked eggplant and tomatoes served with a garlic sauce) and the mantwo (pastry shells filled with onions and beef), the kaddo kept luring me back for more after each smoky-sweet bite.

With the remains of our appetizers cleared away, we geared up for what had to be a fantastic main meal. Within minutes, our entrees appeared in a flurry of aromatic rice, tender vegetables and grilled meat.

My two dining companions opted for lamb dishes. Our host stuck with his favorite standby, the seekh kabob: char-broiled leg of lamb marinated in a thick sauce of onions, raisins and garlic, served with sautéed eggplant and baked seasoned rice. My other dining companion, also desiring lamb, ordered the chowpan: half-rack of marinated lamb served on top of the delicious homemade flatbread (it was excellent to soak up the juices), served with the same eggplant and rice. The lambs were both cooked to order and tender, with a delectable hint of sweet and spice.

I decided to opt for something slightly different (there aren’t that many variations on The Helmand’s menu) and ordered a beef dish. The theeka kabab consisted of prime rib that was also marinated in onions, raisins and garlic, then grilled and served with lentils and baked rice with hefty notes of cinnamon. My meat was also excellently seasoned and exceptionally tender. There was also a general consensus that my lentils were superior to the sautéed eggplant the others received with their orders.

Almost full beyond a functioning capacity, we contentedly waddled out of The Helmand and made our way (slowly) into Boston. My only wish is that, perhaps, the proprietors of The Helmand would consider opening a branch in Central New York?