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The Helmand

143 First Street, Cambridge

Dinner: Sunday – Thursday 5 – 10 p.m., Friday – Saturday 5 – 11 p.m.

Are we going to invade Britain any time soon? Of course not, their food is terrible. Are we going to invade Canada? Why would we? We already have Taco Bell.

But is it possible we’ll invade some foreign, exotic country whose dishes you’ve never eaten before? Yes.

Somewhere in the bowels of the Pentagon, a young neocon yearns for the taste of an unfamiliar dish, and it is only a matter of time before this yearning manifests itself on the world stage.

Armed with this powerful new model of foreign relations, I set out to settle an open question in the foreign policy world: Was the war in Afghanistan a good idea? Was the juice worth the squeeze? And what better place to put the War in Afghanistan to the test than The Helmand. Owned by Mahmood Karzai, brother of President Karzai himself, The Helmand is clearly an official bid to earn the succor of wavering foreign policy wonks who now doubt whether Afghanistan deserves a continued U.S. troop presence.

If there is one thing the Bush Era accomplished, it is to associate the neoconservative school of foreign policy with warmongering and empire. Perhaps the hawkish reputation of neocons is well-deserved — it is, after all, hard to otherwise categorize a set of thinkers who believe both that American primacy is the best path toward national security, and that primacy is best preserved by active involvement and intervention in affairs abroad.

Nonetheless, whether the popular conception of neocons is deserved or not, it’s clear that neoconservatism has not done itself any favors by exchanging its former standard bearers (e.g. Francis Fukuyama), for the new lot (e.g. Paul Wolfowitz). Where the former focused on democratic movements, the latter emphasizes troop movements — even if one believes these two to be sides of the same coin, the public relations fallout from putting the worse foot forward is undeniable.

The neoconservative school is in dire need of a reboot. So, I write today with a bit of revisionist history. I come with an excuse for the mistakes of the past, and a new, potent theory for understanding why and how the United States chooses to involve itself abroad. Here it is:

Neocons aren’t inherently hawkish. They are just misunderstood, hardcore foodies.

In my hometown of Fresno, there is a very large population of Hmong, an Asian ethnic group hailing from southeast Asia. Most of this population is descended from refugees who fled after having fought on the losing side in Vietnam and Laos. And while the wars they fought in and the losses they suffered were tragic, they were unquestionably a boon for the gastronomes of central California. Where before a Fresnan might have had to pay a small fortune to obtain authentic Hmong cuisine, now it’s just a short walk away.

It might be more “traditional” to judge the wisdom of a conflict based upon the geopolitical goals it accomplished or failed to deliver. And if you judged the war in Vietnam by such a limited metric, then sure, you might chalk it up as a loss. But neoconservatives have transcended this parochial sort of accounting. They see the bigger picture — they understand that in the long run, diversity is the real strength of the American nation, and war’s capacity to enrich that diversity, particularly its capacity to enrich the food supply, is at the heart of our national interests.

The Helmand, all things considered, is an excellent restaurant. For the price (in the area of $30 per person), it delivers a meal that compares well with any other option in Boston. The lamb was tender, the rice was tasty, the bread came with delicious dipping sauces … it was a meal I would very happily have again.

However, the reason I came to the Helmand was not to see if the food was good — I came to see if it delivered an epicurean experience that was novel and exciting enough to justify the blood and treasure spent abroad. And I am sad to report that The Helmand is not enough to make our foreign policy in Afghanistan a success.

The kaddo (a baked, candied pumpkin dish) was both excellent and new, and the ambience of the place as a whole was also different in a good way, but there the novelty ends. In hindsight, my conclusion is unsurprising: Afghani cuisine is not far removed from that of either Pakistan or India. If you come to The Helmand expecting anything more than a variation on south Asian dishes, you will likely come away disappointed.

If you are looking for a place that will give you your money’s worth in fine dining, The Helmand certainly deserves your attention. I recommend the same meal I had: kaddo, lamb, and as much of the amazing free bread as you can eat while retaining your dignity. But if you are looking for a new hot thing in the culinary world, maybe your time would be better spent at home, working on withdrawal timetables.