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Central Asian Silk Road Serves ‘wild Flavor’ on Park

At the end of every meal at Silk Road on Park Street, diners receive a little wooden camel. 

Camels once traversed the Silk Road — actually a network of trade roads — which spanned from China to the Middle East, and was in use from the second century until the mid-15th century. Over 4,000 miles long, it helped facilitate economic, cultural, political, religious and culinary interactions between the East and West. 

One of the countries on that storied road is Tajikistan, and as of this summer, Madison finally has a Central Asian restaurant. Silk Road, 1920 S. Park St. serves Central Asian food on Tajik plates and tablecloths. Clothing items, including a handmade embroidered young boy’s jacket, adorn the walls. Arched windows add to the ambience, as does Tajik music playing on a TV. 

Owner/chef Manuchehr “Manu” Kholov created the restaurant. “He consults with me about what Americans would like and about marketing,” said his wife, Hannah Hamelman, who led the two to Madison after starting graduate school in 2020. Hamelman earned her master’s degree in 2022 and now helps Kholov in the restaurant. 

One chef’s journey

Kholov was born in a village in the Faizabad region of Tajikistan and grew up in the country’s capital, Dushanbe. Now 25, Kholov started working in restaurants at the age of 13, first as a dishwasher and server and soon thereafter as a cook. 

While still going to school he became a manager and continued his restaurant career as a university student, studying law and international relations. Kholov studied abroad in St. Petersburg, Russia, and then Kazakhstan, where he joined the English language group even though he “had no clue what they were saying.” 

That’s where he met his wifein 2018. Originally from Bolivia, Hamelman was adopted by a Presbyterian mother and a Jewish father. While studying abroad in Kazakhstan, she met students from all over Central Asia and lived with three young Kazakh women. Curious, Hamelman read about Islam, studied various interpretations of the religion and eventually decided to convert. Her father “accepted the conversion completely,” Hamelman said, while her mother took some time to accept it. 

Back in Dushanbe in 2018, Kholov ran a hot dog stand and a small snack shop. After heopened a restaurant, he asked Hamelman, who was teaching English at the time, to marry him. 

Kholov started working front of house in “the best Italian restaurant in Dushanbe” just two months before COVID hit and restaurants closed. Hamelman was able to take a charter flight back to the United States and in 2020, began a master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the Center for Russia, East Europe, and Central Asia. 

With the closest U.S. embassy in Almaty, Kazakhstan, which is about 800 miles away, and travel ground to a halt, Kholov couldn’t make the first five visa interview dates he was given before being approved in February 2021. He bought his ticket the same day, left everything behind, and arrived in Chicago on March 14, 2021 in a T-shirt. The first thing he bought in the U.S. was a hoodie.

“I was still freezing,” he remembered. While Hamelman studied in their small apartment, Kholov began getting a taste of Madison winter. 

Eventually, Kholov started baking and cooking as charity for his local mosque. Little by little, he bought more equipment, eventually making an offer on his current location in July 2023. The previous tenant was Madtown Chicken N’ Fish. It was also once a Taco Bell. 

Better than baklava

On a recent visit to Silk Road, a friend and I started with the Tajik elixir ($6.99). This is a pale colored, richly flavored drink made of blended lime, ginger, mint, orange and lemon. Sweet and sour, strong and refreshing, it comes with a side of honey, sourced from Wisconsin beekeepers. 

Other interesting drinks ($4.49-$6.99) are delivered from Russia every two months. They include bottles and cans with concoctions such as lemon with elderflower and mint juice as well as pear, quince or tarhun (tarragon) sodas.

The grilled peach salad ($11.99) has greens, feta cheese, blackberries, blueberries and, yes, grilled peaches, accompanied by a uniquely flavored vinaigrette. The secret ingredient here is ground thyme, added for “wild flavor.” 

As in many parts of the Muslim world, lamb ($22.99) is a favored meat. Here it comes on the bone and with its fat, which adds to the flavor, on a bed of rice mixed with pumpkin seeds, garbanzo beans, cashews and raisins. Tomatoes, julienned cucumbers, onions and sumac also accompany the meat, which is served in a mild, herby tomato-based sauce with a side of hot sauce.

The desert, künefe ($14.99), also known as knafeh in the Middle East, is as common in the region as baklava (and some would argue is even better), but not nearly as familiar to Americans. It is a shredded phyllo dough and mozzarella cheese soaked in syrup, often served with nuts. At Silk Road, this must-try delicacy is made fresh to order and comes in a lovely traditional bowl, warm from the oven, with whole and ground pistachios and, surprise, vanilla ice cream. 

The portions are large, generally enough for two diners. And a final bit of good news: In summer, the lovely outdoors patio will be open. 

Source: Cap Times