Laos Food in the Southeast

Laos is a bastion of tradition, where spirits from the far reaches of its past trickle along into the present. Formidable temples juxtapose tourist-friendly spas, Buddhist monks drift down the streets of Luang Prabang among easy-going tuk-tuk drivers, and river serpent statues wind up the sides of temples as medical professionals make their way to the Science Cafe for discussions on research and medical ethics. This blend of historical treasures and modern innovations from a country dubbed the Land of a Million Elephants is what Khan Sikarng and her family bring to East Tennessee with Sticky Rice Cafe.

Family, Tradition, and Sticky Rice

Sticky Rice Cafe opened in May 2016 and is run almost entirely by Khan and her immediate family, with her mom in the kitchen and her kids serving tables.

“It’s literally just my mom and my brothers cooking back there,” says Khan. “It’s so tiny, and people don’t realize it. We don’t have any pre-chopped, pre-made [food]. Whatever’s ordered, it’s being put together and cooked fresh… and sometimes the kids get busy and they’re like, ‘Oh, Grandma, we need tapioca,’ and that takes an hour. Sometimes they don’t let her know when it’s low, so she’s trying to do everything at the same time.”

Khan’s mother isn’t fluent in English, which can sometimes make their daily operations more complicated.

“We still have to help her with reading tickets because sometimes people come in and they want to change stuff,” says Khan. “But that’s why all of us are here: her grandkids, and me, and my brothers. She can understand a bit of English, but it’s very slow. We have to stop everything to go explain to her. It’s difficult, but we do it, and we do it as a family.”

Sticky Rice Cafe emphasizes four main precepts: high-quality taste, Lao tradition, healthiness, and freshness. While chopsticks, forks, knives, and other eating utensils are available at each table, customers are more than welcome to eat with their hands, as sticky rice is meant to be used as an eating utensil on its own.

Sticky Rice Cafe aims to offer a vibrant familial, cultural, and flavorful experience, which is obvious in everything from the traditional Laos food it serves to the attention given to its web presence, a personal and professional investment many small businesses are not apt to make. The website is colorful and modern, with “Family Owned and Operated” proudly declared on the front page and an “About” page that shares the Sikarng family story.

“A lot of people in Knoxville know where I came from and how I came to own this restaurant, but we wanted people to know [about] our family and [understand] what my mom went through to bring me here,” says Khan. “Not a lot of people know where my home country is; there’s so much history, but nobody knows my people. People think I’m either Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese, or Chinese. That’s the first guess everybody ever has. It’s just hard to explain.”

Khan and her mom are from Laos, and Khan’s dad is from nearby Thailand. The Lao People’s Revolutionary Party came to power in Laos in 1975 after a civil war, incarcerating tens of thousands of Lao people in “reeducation” camps. This and other repressive measures compelled many Laotians, including Khan’s mother and her family, to flee across the Mekong River to Thailand.

Khan’s family moved from refugee camp to refugee camp across Asia during this conflict before an eventual sponsorship gave them the opportunity to move to Louisiana, an area that bears a striking resemblance to Laos in terms of its French influences. They now place a special emphasis on creating a community through Sticky Rice Cafe, bringing warmth and comfort to their customers as they try unfamiliar Lao food, many for the first time.

“I lived the first five and a half years of my life in refugee camps before I got to come here,” says Khan. “I’m more appreciative because I’m the first generation in the U.S. because of my mom and dad. I had to learn speaking in English, reading and writing in English, getting the name of my people out there. This is where I want to be.”

Food in Laotian Culture

But Khan’s dreams of opening a restaurant were not shared by everyone in her family. Her father did not want her to open the Sticky Rice Cafe, thinking no one would like Lao food and worrying their culture was not prevalent enough for people to take an interest in. Food is a huge component of Lao culture, but Laotian restaurants are rare.

“When people think of Asian food, they think Thai food because a lot of people are more familiar with it,” says Kahn. “We’re similar, but with my mom’s cooking, it’s more country [and] a little bit stronger in flavor. A lot of Thai people here like the way my mom cooks because the food is more traditional.”

While there are many Lao people in the U.S., their population in Knoxville is still minimal. Khan explained that in Laotian culture, all moms know how to cook well, but every mom cooks differently, so restaurants are not a necessity among a group of people who all have an expert chef cooking for them at home. Without this culinary representation in the social sphere, many people outside of Lao culture have little knowledge of Laos, or those who trace their roots there. In almost 30 years of living in Knoxville, Khan has met only a handful of people who are aware of Laotian culture, yet Khan and her family persist in increasing its visibility.

Betting on Boba

As Sticky Rice Cafe’s business grows, so does its plans to innovate. The restaurant has found success with serving boba (also known as bubble tea). Although Khan plans to stay more traditional with her boba flavor options and base varieties, guests are able to use alcohol to customize their order, with some restrictions.

“We can put boba in alcohol, but we can’t seal it,” says Khan. “We can make it in a glass – if someone wants a tea with alcohol, I can make it but in a cup. They have to drink it there, and they can’t take it out with them or leave the restaurant with it.”

However, Sticky Rice Cafe recently took advantage of another ongoing trend by debuting its own food truck so customers can enjoy bubble tea and Laos food beyond the restaurant doors.

The Comfort of Sticky Rice

As exciting and enticing as the foods and beverages of Sticky Rice Cafe are, the open, encouraging atmosphere removes the intimidation factor of trying new cuisine, replacing it with a firmly comforting sense of approachability that is helped along by Khan’s commitment to quality customer service.

“Customer service is top notch to me, [and] I instill it in my kids,” says Khan, who has worked in the restaurant industry for more than 20 years and continues to serve customers who have remained loyal to her throughout her career. “Customers are the ones that will take us far [so] it’s deep in my heart.”

The dishes at Sticky Rice Cafe might be new to some, but the hominess, comradery, and inviting experience are open to anyone who wants to enjoy the same food the Sikarng family grew up eating.

“I’m here every day making sure everything is good, but I know I’m not going to please everyone in the whole wide world,” says Khan. “Sometimes people just aren’t happy, but I’m going to do it every day all day long. This is my family; I take care of my family with this. I put everything I have into this place. I’m not going to sit around and not care about what people think and feel. I want everyone to come in feeling like family and leave happy all the time.”

Sheri Smith
Sheri Smith

Born in California and raised in New Mexico, Sheri Smith moved with her family from the shores of San Diego to the desert lands of Alamogordo. Being surrounded by NASA's White Sands Test Facility, the mystery of the Roswell UFO incident, and the future building site of the world's first spaceport for commercial flights to space sparked her interest in astronomy and space travel. Sheri spent several years in the Land of Enchantment, living on a street called Tierra De Suenos (Place of Dreams), but her travels took her all over the world – from England and South Korea to Turkey and the Philippines – before she settled down in East Tennessee with her incredible boyfriend and best friend, Nate.