When Afghan Cooking Meets American Pumpkins


Anthony Saffery

I was introduced to Helmand, an Afghani restaurant in Cambridge, by my dad, who is the person who has introduced me to the majority of interesting foods in my life. My dad is a passionate foodie, and always has been. When I lived on the other side of the country, before there was email, he would clip reviews and send them to me, with arrows and notes written in. I would try to respond in kind, but he has always been the true gourmet sleuth in the family.

I feel quite sure I had no idea what Afghani food was about the first time I went there, and I feel equally sure that I did not expect to be as excited as he was about what I had been told was largely vegetarian fare. I like meat. There, I said it. I have never been really confident around any meal plan that excludes large portions of any one group, meat inclusive, and so I was not particularly confident when my father first convinced me to accompany him to this oddly located restaurant that had opened recently, especially not when he described the menu as "mostly vegetarian."

I was overjoyed by how wrong I was.

It was not the first thing to convince me that this was a cuisine to treasure, but it is pumpkin kaddo, or kaddo bowrani, that I go back for over and over: baked pumpkin. I top it simply, with fresh, local yogurt, and serve it as an appetizer. And then, the next day, I take the box of leftover pumpkin out of the fridge and eat it with my fingers. And that's what my dad would do too.

It is kaddo that I that I have carried with me, and that I love to make when the sugar pumpkins start to appear at farmers' markets in the fall.

My first love was not actually the kaddo, but rather the aushak—a perfect ravioli, light and filled with some kind of leeks from heaven. No! Wait! It was the fresh bread that I watched come out of the oven, and to our table, with those chutneys, or whatever they are, those sauces. Not sweet. Spicy, minty, vinegary...

But it is kaddo that I that I have carried with me, and that I love to make when the sugar pumpkins start to appear at farmers' markets in the fall.

There is a rumor out there that you can substitute butternut squash, or other varieties, for pumpkin, but I am a firm pumpkin believer. That said, be sure to use a sugar pumpkin, not a Jack o' lantern type. The sugar pumpkin is flavorful, the other not.

Choose a firm, heavy sugar pumpkin, about three pounds. Cut it in half and remove the seeds, retaining them to toast, then peel. Peeling a pumpkin is not a quick task. You can use a chef's knife, but I would recommend one of those wide, flat peelers, or at least a carrot peeler. Once peeled, cut the pumpkin flesh into two-inch squares, and toss them in just enough oil to lightly coat. At Cuisine en Locale we use canola, but olive and other mild vegetable oils work too.

On the stove, brown the large sides of the pieces, on medium heat in a flat pan. As you cook them, you will notice the pieces become less convex, more flattened out. Don't skip this step. It is important!

Toss the pumpkin pieces in about a quarter cup of granulated maple sugar to coat (or in regular or brown sugar). Traditionally cinnamon would be added, but the maple brings its own flavor. Place them in a baking dish, cover, and bake for 30 minutes at 350 F.

Serve plain, topped with yogurt and garlic, or with a traditional Afghani tomato-based meat sauce.