Tuesday, May 3, 2011

An Afghan Cuisine Experience

Well, as I'm sure you've all heard by now (you'd have to be in a coma not to), Osama bin Ladin is dead. Now, this isn't a political blog whatsoever, and I generally keep my political opinions to myself, but I am tremendously relieved to hear that at least this chapter in the world's history has closed, and I hope it will offer some relief to everyone in the United States and around the world who has been affected by terrorism. I'm only bringing this up now, because I recently had the pleasure of dining at a wonderful Afghani restaurant in the Boston area with a group of fellow food bloggers. I loved the restaurant but had put off reviewing it for a couple weeks (not sure why, probably because I had so many recipes I wanted to share more immediately), but I've decided given recent events, it would be the perfect time to discuss the experience. Hopefully this will shed a more pleasant light on a country that perhaps some people are feeling very negatively about at the moment.

The night before the Boston Marathon I joined my dear friend Joanne from Eats Well with Others (who ran the marathon the following day!) along with some Boston-area food bloggers who I met for the first time that night, including Kerstin of Cake, Batter and Bowl, Cara of Cara's Cravings, Elina of Healthy and Sane, Megan of Delicious Dishings, and Shannon of Tri to Cook. We met up at the Helmand, an Afghani restaurant in Cambridge. I was really excited to try out a cuisine that was completely new to me. The restaurant is apparently very popular, even on a Sunday evening it was packed!

Flatbread

A large wood-burning oven open to the dining room is where the famous flatbread is prepared. A single cook mans this station, baking constantly to provide enough bread for all the hungry diners. We really loved the bread (I can see why it's "famous"), especially with the incredibly flavorful dipping sauces that accompanied it. The trio of sauces includes a yogurt and mint sauce, a cilantro, walnut, and jalapeño sauce, and a red chili sauce (from mildest to most flavorful/spicy). I enjoyed them all, but absolutely fell for the cilantro, walnut, and jalapeño sauce. It was delicious without being really spicy. Filling up on bread is pretty easy to do before your meal even arrives :)

  Trio of sauces - a yogurt and mint sauce, a cilantro, walnut, and jalapeño sauce, and a red chili sauce  

Luckily I happened to sit next to Megan who was looking to try a couple appetizers instead of an entrée and suggested we could share! I'm a big fan of sharing, and so we selected 4 appetizers to try. The first was the Mantwo, homemade pastry shells filled with onions and beef, served on yogurt and topped with carrots, yellow split peas and beef sauce. The description of pastry shells is a bit misleading. I thought these were more like dumplings. These were very flavorful, an incredible balance of flavors considering all the different ingredients used in one dish (I found this to be common with everything we ate). The meat sauce was delicious and unlike other "meat sauces" I would imagine served with pasta. It was nicely spiced without being spicy, and was served with many dishes on the menu. They obviously love their meat sauce :) Vegetarian Mantwo is also available.

Mantwo - homemade pastry shells filled with onions and beef, served on yogurt and topped with carrots, yellow split peas and beef sauce $7.50 (appetizer) 

We also enjoyed the Aushak, Afghan ravioli filled with leeks and scallions, served on yogurt-mint topped with ground beef sauce. Veggie-based dishes such as this one can be served without meat sauce too, to keep them vegetarian. Leeks and scallions must be a popular vegetarian filling, as another appetizer we later tried had the same filling. A great mild oniony flavor, again paired with yogurt and meat sauce. A very nice and incredibly unique version of "ravioli." Each Aushak was fairly large and the appetizer serving came with two. Most of the appetizers are also available in entrée portions.

Aushak - Afghan ravioli filled with leeks and scallions, served on yogurt-mint topped with ground beef sauce $7.50 (appetizer)

Next we tried the Bowlawni, brick oven baked twin pastry shells, one filled with leeks and scallions the other filled with spiced potatoes, garnished with yogurt and mint. These guys were completely vegetarian with a crispy exterior unlike the softer doughs encompassing the previous appetizers we had. One had the same leek and scallion filling as the Aushak, while the other had a lovely spiced potato filling not unlike potato fillings I've encountered in Indian cuisine. In fact, I would say that Afghani cuisine is a cross between Middle Eastern and Indian cuisine. Some of the entrées seemed reminiscent of curries, in fact.

Bowlawni - brick oven baked twin pastry shells, one filled with leeks and scallions the other filled with spiced potatoes, garnished with yogurt and mint $7.50 (appetizer)  

Finally (and I'm glad we saved this appetizer for last) was the famous Kaddo, pan-fried and then baked baby pumpkin seasoned with sugar and served on yogurt garlic sauce, topped with ground beef sauce. This was perhaps the most unusual, but also a highlight. The pumpkin was super sweet, almost dessert-like, and yet it was served with two savory sauces, namely the ground beef sauce (a vegetarian version lacks the sauce). Although it sounds strange, I loved the sweet-savory element of this dish. The spiced and somewhat salty meat sauce was a really unique compliment to the sugary pumpkin. Even though it contained meat, I joked that this was our dessert course :)

Kaddo - pan-fried and then baked baby pumpkin seasoned with sugar and served on yogurt garlic sauce, topped with ground beef sauce $7.50 (appetizer)  

We finished off our meal with more wonderful blogger conversation and some homemade cake that Shannon had brought with her to the dinner. A $1.50 per person slicing charge was added to our check, and well worth the final indulgence. I'm really glad that I was able to experience an unfamiliar cuisine and that I really enjoyed it! I've been a pretty adventurous eater for some time, and yet this was foreign territory. I also loved meeting the other bloggers and am so flattered that Joanne included me in her pre-marathon dinner. If any of you are in the Boston area and looking for a new and satisfying dining experience, I highly suggest you head to Cambridge and check out the Helmand.

The Helmand
143 1st St
Cambridge, MA 02142
Neighborhoods: Kendall Square/MIT, East Cambridge
(617) 492-4646
www.helmandrestaurant.com/

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