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The Sacrificial Lamb

[whitespace] Helmand

Despite a bitter war, Helmand serves sumptuous plates of peace

By Michael Stabile

Perhaps i'm a peacenik at heart, but recently I've become rather obsessed with the numerous countries the United States and/or NATO intermittently bomb. After a recent piece on Vietnam, I got to wondering if I shouldn't dedicate a recurring column to the cuisines we're forever seasoning with gunpowder. Alternating between restaurant lists and the enemies of the state, I stumbled upon our not-so-long-forgotten enemy Afghanistan. With the country bordering Iran, Pakistan and the former Soviet Union, we just couldn't get enough of saving Afghan culture from the influence of communism in a state that we then reduced to rubble.

Southern Afghan cuisine is a subtle but distinct fusion of the Persian (Iranian) influence to the west and the Indian and Pakistani style of the south. Cardamom, pistachios, pumpkin and juicy mounds of lamb dominate the menu of Helmand, a North Beach restaurant on the outskirts of Broadway. Named after the largest province in Afghanistan, home to the fertile agricultural valley that surrounds the landscape-defining Helmand River, Helmand emphasizes the easy paring of aromatics and sweeteners with both meat and vegetarian dishes. The unusual heat of Indian dishes is offset in Afghan cuisine by the honey, nutmeg and mint that define the Turkish style of the Middle East.

Kaddo ($3.95), a slab of baby pumpkin pan-fried, then baked, is an enthusiastically flavored example of the Afghan struggle between the sweet and the savory. Seasoned with sugar and topped with both yogurt garlic and ground beef sauces, the dish could be served either as an appetizer or as a dessert. Luckily, kaddo (same price, same ingredients) makes three separate appearances on the menu (including, quizzically, the vegetarian menu). The meat sauce is, granted, a strange plate fellow for pumpkin pie, but it raises the dish from simple to complex. Aushak ($3.95), a Middle Eastern leek and scallion ravioli, comes similarly adorned, with garlic balancing with mint and a sweet carrot sauce gilding the vegetable pockets.

The entrees, blessedly, make incredibly varied use of lamb, currently my favorite meat in the entire world, through multiple marinations and grilling of legs, racks and loin chops. Beef, chicken and sea bass (odd, in a landlocked country) pop up occasionally on the list, and vegetarian options may be limited to entree-sized versions of appetizers, but I could only concern myself with what appeared to be the national meat of Afghanistan.

Kourma challow ($11.95), juicy chunks of meat grilled with cumin, coriander and nutmeg, may have been casual in presentation--sautéed green and red peppers and onions accompanied by the cumin-flavored, baked-rice "challow"--but allowed the ragged deliciousness of the meat to burst forth.

Eggplant, spinach, barley and grapes distinguish other dishes, as do multilayered pastry shells, as in the carrot-redolent mantwo ($10.95), into which the Helmand chefs stuff ground beef and onions. The similarity to Indian samosas may be more than coincidental, but the aromatic interpretation is distinctly Afghan.

According to Afghan tradition, guests are to be regarded as gifts from Allah, and perhaps they still are in the politically inaccessible war-torn homeland, but it wouldn't hurt Helmand to raise the quality of service a tad. Getting more beer or asking for the check was not unlike dealing with Pac Bell--I was often told that I'd have to find my waiter (who, it seemed, was never one of the rotating people who was serving me at the time). But, hey, I suppose with the grief we've inflicted on their country, going out of their way to wait on Americans may not be a priority exactly.

Helmand, 430 Broadway, 415.362.0641

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From the May 10, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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