The staple food of the Lao is steamed sticky rice, which is eaten by hand. In fact, the Lao eat more sticky rice than any other people in the world. Sticky rice is considered the essence of what it means to be Lao. Often the Lao will refer to themselves as "luk khao niaow", which can be translated as "children or descendants of sticky rice". Galangal, lemongrass, and padaek (Lao fish sauce) are important ingredients.
The most famous Lao dish is larb (Lao: ລາບ; sometimes also spelled laap), a spicy mixture of marinated meat and/or fish that is sometimes raw (prepared like ceviche) with a variable combination of herbs, greens, and spices. Another Lao delectable invention is a spicy green papaya salad dish known as tam mak hoong (Lao: ຕໍາໝາກຫຸ່ງ) or more famously known to the West as som tam.
Lao cuisine has many regional variations, corresponding in part to the fresh foods local to each region. A French legacy is still evident in the capital city, Vientiane, where baguettes are sold on the street and French restaurants are common and popular, which were first introduced when Laos was a part of French Indochina.
- 1 Lao cuisine origins
- 2 Ingredients
- 3 Kitchen utensils
- 4 Cooking methods
- 5 Eating customs
- 6 Beverages
- 7 See also
- 8 Further reading
- 9 References
- 10 External links
Lao cuisine origins
The Lao originally came from a northern region that is now part of China. As they moved southward, they brought their traditions with them. Due to historical Lao migrations from Laos into neighboring regions, Lao cuisine has influenced the mainly Lao-populated region of Northeastern Thailand (Isan), and Lao foods were also introduced to Cambodia and Northern Thailand (Lanna) where the Lao have migrated. In his book, Culture and Customs of Laos, Arne Kislenko noted the following about Lao cuisine:
Any discussion about Lao cuisine cannot be limited to Laos. There are approximately six times more ethnic Lao in the Isan region of northeastern Thailand than in Laos itself, which makes it necessary to go beyond national boundaries in search of definitively Lao food. In fact, with the recent droves of migrants from Isan further south to Bangkok, the Thai capital has in many respects become the epicenter of Lao cuisine. Some estimate that more Lao are there than in any other city in the world, including Vientiane. There are also sizable expatriate communities in places like the United States and France that make for numerous culinary variations abroad.
Despite there being more ethnic Lao living in Thailand than in Laos and Lao cuisine playing a pivotal role in making Thai food an international phenomenon, very little to no mention of the word "Lao" are found. This phenomenon are most likely the direct consequences of forced Thaification (1942–present), an official attempts to promote national unity and "Thainess", where any mention of "Lao" and other non-Thai descriptors were removed and replaced with northeastern Thai or Isan.
Consequently, Thaification has led to social discrimination against northeasterners and the word "Lao" became a derogatory term. Being "Lao" was stigmatized as being uneducated and backward, thus causing many northeasterners to be ashamed to be known as being Lao. More recently, as Lao identity loses its stigma, there is now a real sense of resurgence and pride in Lao identity, particularly among the Isan youth.
In the West, even with a sizable expatriate communities, Lao cuisine is still virtually unknown even though much of what is served in Thai restaurants is likely to be Lao or Lao-owned. In fact, unbeknownst to most people when they eat their favourite som tam, larb, and sticky rice at their favourite Thai or northeastern Thai (Isan) restaurants they are actually eating the Thai versions of traditional Lao food. This accidental reinforcement of Thaification by the expatriate Lao communities and Lao restaurateurs is well observed by Malaphone Phommasa and Celestine Detvongsa in their article, Lao American Ethnic Economy:
Unlike […] ethnic specific stores, Lao-owned restaurants are doing better in reaching out to the general public. Although there are some restaurants that advertised as singularly "Laotian", many Lao restaurants are established under the guise of Thai restaurants and Thai/Lao restaurants to entice mainstream customers. Because most Americans are unfamiliar with Laotian food, Lao entrepreneurs have aimed to acquire more business by advertising themselves as Thai restaurants: the latter have successfully achieved popularity with the mainstream population. These restaurateurs would then incorporate Lao dishes onto the menu. Although, there are many similarities between Lao and northern Thai cuisine, certain foods will distinguish a true Thai restaurant from a Lao-owned restaurant would be the inclusion of "sticky rice" on the menu...
Rice and noodles
- Rice (Lao: ເຂົ້າ; Lao pronunciation: [kʰa᷆w])
- Glutinous rice: (Lao: ເຂົ້າໜຽວ; Lao pronunciation: [kʰa᷆w.nǐaw]) a type of rice grown mainly in Southeast and East Asia, which has opaque grains, very low amylose content, and is especially sticky when cooked.
- Cellophane noodles: (Lao: ເສັ້ນລ້ອນ; Lao pronunciation: [se᷆n.lɔ̂ːn]) transparent noodles made from mung bean starch and water.
- Khao pun: (Lao: ເສັ້ນເຂົ້າປຸ້ນ; Lao pronunciation: [se᷆n.kʰa᷆w.pûn]) are fresh rice noodles which are made from rice which has first been fermented for three days, boiled, and then made into noodles by pressing the resulting dough through a sieve into boiling water.
- Rice noodles: (Lao: ເສັ້ນເຝີ; Lao pronunciation: [se᷆n.fɤ̌ː]) noodles that are made from rice. This should not be confused with Vietnamese pho. Though the word has Vietnamese origin, the dish it refers to in Laos might not be the same as Vietnamese pho.
Vegetables, herbs and spices
- Asian basil: (Lao: ບົວລະພາ, Isan: บัวระพา, Lao pronunciation: [bùa.la.pʰáː]) eaten raw with feu
- Bamboo shoots: (Lao: ໜໍ່ໄມ່, Isan: หน่อไม้, Lao pronunciation: [nɔ̄ː.mâj]), used in stews or boiled as a side dish
- Banana flower: (Lao: ໝາກປີ, Isan: หมากปี, Lao pronunciation: [ma᷆ːk.pìː]), a raw accompaniment to noodle soup or cooked in others.
- Chili pepper: (Lao: ໝາກເຜັດ; Lao pronunciation: [ma᷆ːk.pʰét], Isan: พริก, Lao pronunciation: [pʰīk]), seven popular types
- Climbing wattle (acacia): (Lao: ຜັກຂາ, Isan: ผักขา, Lao pronunciation: [pʰák.kʰǎː]) used in soups, curries, omelettes, and stir-frys
- Coriander (cilantro): (Lao: ຜັກຫອມປ້ອມ; Lao pronunciation: [pʰák.hɔ̌ːm.pɔ̂ːm], Isan: ผักซี, Lao pronunciation: [pʰák.sīː]), both leaves and seeds added to dips, marinades, and a wide variety of dishes.
- Cucumber: (Lao: ໝາກແຕງ, Isan: หมากแตง, Lao pronunciation: [ma᷆ːk.tɛ̀ːŋ]), eaten as a garnish or as a substitute for green papaya in salad.
- Galangal: (Lao: ຂ່າ, Isan: ข่า, pronounced [kʰāː]), typically used in soups, mixed dishes, and marinades
- Garlic: (Lao: ກະທຽມ, Isan: กระเทียม, Lao pronunciation: [ka.tʰíam])
- Ginger flower
- Ginger root: (Lao: ຂີງ, Isan: ขิง, Lao pronunciation: [kʰǐŋ])
- Kaffir lime: (Lao: ໝາກຂີ້ຫູດ; pronounced [ma᷆ːk.kʰi᷆ː.hu᷆ːt], Isan: มะกรูด maak-khii-huut), typically used in soups and stews
- Kaipen: (Lao: ໄຄແຜ່ນ, Isan: ไกแผ่น, Lao pronunciation: [kʰáj.pʰɛ̄ːn]), dried sheets of edible Mekong River algae, similar to nori.
- Lao basil: (Lao: ຜັກອີ່ຕູ່; Lao pronunciation: [pʰák.ʔīː.tūː]) Isan: แมงลัก used in soups and stews
- Lao coriander: ("Lao dill"), used in stews and eaten raw
- Lao eggplant: (Lao: ໝາກເຂືອ, Isan: หมากเขือ; Lao pronunciation: [ma᷆ːk.kʰɯ̌a]), small and round Kermit eggplant, used in stews or eaten raw
- Lemon grass: (Lao: ຫົວສິງໄຄ, Isan: หัวสิงไค;; pronounced [hǔa.sǐŋ.kʰáj], hua sing-khai), used in soups, stews and marinades
- Lime: (Lao: ໝາກນາວ, Isan: หมากนาว, Lao pronunciation: [ma᷆ːk.náːw]), common ingredient to many dishes.
- Mint: (Lao: ໃບຫອມລາບ; Lao pronunciation: [bàj.hɔ̌ːm.lâːp], Isan: ใบสะระแหน่, Lao pronunciation: [bàj.sa.la.nɛ̄ː]), used in goy/laap, and eaten rawฝ
- Midnight horror: (Lao: ໝາກລີ້ນໄມ້, Isan: หมากลิ้นไม้,; Lao pronunciation: [ma᷆ːk.lîːn.mâj]) a bitter green, eaten raw.
- Mushrooms: (Lao: ເຫັດ, Isan: เห็ด, Lao pronunciation: [hét]), used in soups and stir-fries.
- Neem (kadao) : (Lao: ຜັກກະເດົາ, Isan: ผักกะเดา, Lao pronunciation: [pʰák.ka.dàw]), Azadirachta indica or neem, a bitter vegetable often eaten raw.
- Papaya (green): (Lao: ໝາກຫຸ່ງ, Isan: มักหุ่ง, pronounced [ma᷆ːk.hūŋ]), shredded and used in spicy papaya salad.
- Rattan shoots: typically used in stews (bitter)
- Scarlet wisteria: (Lao: ດອກແຄ, Isan: ดอกแค, Lao pronunciation: [dɔ᷆ːk.kʰɛ́ː]) Sesbania grandiflora, blossom eaten as vegetable in soups and curries.
- Sa khan: (Lao: ສະຄ້ານ, Isan: สะค้าน; Lao pronunciation: [sa.kʰâːn]) stem of Piper ribesioides, used in stews
- Shallot: (Lao: ບົ່ວແດງ, Isan: บั่วแดง; Lao pronunciation: [būa.dɛ̀ːŋ])
- Tamarind: (Lao: ໝາກຂາມ, Isan: หมากขาม, Lao pronunciation: [ma᷆ːk.kʰǎːm]), sour fruit used in soups or as a snack.
- Tamarind leaf: (Lao: ໃບໝາກຂາມ), Isan: ใบหมากขาม, Lao pronunciation: [bàj.ma᷆ːk.kʰǎːm]) used in soups
- Tomato: (Lao: ໝາກເລັ່ນ, Isan: หมากเล่น, Lao pronunciation: [ma᷆ːk.lēn]), eaten as a garnish item or in papaya salad.
- Turkey berry: (Lao: ໝາກແຄ້ງ, Isan: หมากแค้ง, Lao pronunciation: [ma᷆ːk.kʰɛ̂ːŋ]), Solanum torvum, typically used in stews and curries.
- Water spinach: (Lao: ຜັກບົ້ງ, Isan: ผักบุ้ง, Lao pronunciation: [pʰák.bûŋ]), Ipomoea aquatica, stir-fried, steamed, or eaten as raw vegetable accompaniment.
- Wild betel leaves: (Lao: ຜັກອີ່ເລີດ, Isan: ผักอีเลิด, Lao pronunciation: [pʰák.ʔīː.lɤ̂ːt]), Piper sarmentosum, a green, eaten raw.
- Yanang leaf: (Lao: ໃບຢານາງ, Isan: ใบย่านาง, Lao pronunciation: [bàj.jāː.náːŋ]), used as a green colouring agent and as a seasoning or thickener for soups and stews.
- Yard long beans: (Lao: ໝາກຖົ່ວ, Isan: หมากถั่ว, Lao pronunciation: [ma᷆ːk.tʰūa]), eaten raw, in stews, and can be made into a spicy bean salad (tam mak thoua).
Pastes and sauces
- Fish sauce (nam pa): clear fish sauce (Lao: ນ້ຳປາ, Isan: น้ำปลา, Lao pronunciation: [nâm.pàː]), used as a general condiment.
- Padaek: (Lao: ປາແດກ, Isan: ปลาแดก, Lao pronunciation: [pàː.dɛ᷆ːk]), Lao-style fish paste.
- Pork belly "three-layer pork": (Lao: ຊີ້ນໝູສາມຊັ້ນ, Isan: ซี้นหมูสามซั้น; Lao pronunciation: [sîːn.mǔː.sǎːm.sân])
- Dried water buffalo skin: (Lao: ໜັງເຄັມ; Lao pronunciation: [nǎŋ.kʰém]) used in jaew bong and stews
The typical Lao stove, or brazier, is called a tao-lo and is fueled by charcoal. It is shaped like a bucket, with room for a single pot or pan to sit on top. The wok, maw khang in Lao, is used for frying and stir frying. Sticky rice is steamed inside of a bamboo basket, a huad, which sits on top of a pot, which is called the maw nung.
A large, deep mortar called a khok is used for pounding tam mak hoong and other foods. It is indispensable in the Lao kitchen.
Grilling, boiling, stewing, steaming, searing and mixing (as in salads) are all traditional cooking methods. Stir-frying is now common, but considered to be a Chinese influence. Stews are often green in color, because of the large proportion of vegetables used as well as ya nang leaf. Soups/stews are categorized as follows, tom, tom jeud, keng, and keng soua.
"Ping" means grilled. It is a favorite cooking method. Ping gai is grilled chicken, ping sin is grilled meat, and ping pa is grilled fish. Before grilling, the meat is typically seasoned with minced garlic, minced coriander root, minced galangal, salt, soy sauce, and fish sauce, each in varying quantities, if at all, according to preference. The Lao seem to prefer a longer grilling at lower heat.
The result is grilled meat that is typically drier than what Westerners are accustomed to. The Lao probably prefer their food this way, because they wish to keep their hands dry and clean for handling sticky rice. They also typically eat the grilled food with a hot sauce (chaew) of some sort, which takes away the dryness.
Lao food differs from neighboring cuisines in multiple respects. One is that the Lao meal almost always includes a large quantity of fresh raw greens, vegetables and herbs served undressed on the side. Another is that savory dishes are never sweet. "Sweet and sour" is generally considered bizarre and foreign in Laos. Yet another is that some dishes are bitter. There is a saying in Lao cuisine, "van pen lom; khom pen ya," which can be translated as, "sweet makes you dizzy; bitter makes you healthy."
A couple of the green herbs favored in Lao cuisine but generally ignored by their neighbors are mint and dill, both of paramount importance. Galangal is a cooking herb that is heavily favored in Laos, unlike in neighboring countries. It appears in probably the majority of Lao dishes, along with the conventional herbs: garlic, shallots, lemongrass, etc. Another distinctive characteristic of Lao food or more properly, Lao eating habits, is that food is frequently eaten at room temperature. This may be attributable to the fact that Lao food served with sticky rice is traditionally handled by hand.
The traditional manner of eating was communal, with diners sitting on a reed mat on the wooden floor around a raised platform woven out of rattan called a ka toke. Dishes are arranged on the ka toke, which is of a standard size. Where there are many diners, multiple ka tokes will be prepared. Each ka toke will have one or more baskets of sticky rice, which is shared by all the diners at the ka toke.
In recent times, eating at a ka toke is the exception rather than the rule. The custom is maintained, however, at temples, where each monk is served his meal on a ka toke. Once food is placed on the "ka toke" it becomes a "pha kao." In modern homes, the term for preparing the table for a meal is still taeng pha kao, or prepare the phah kao.
Traditionally, spoons were used only for soups and white rice, and chopsticks were used only for noodles. Most food was handled by hand. The reason this custom evolved is probably due to the fact that sticky rice can only be easily handled by hand.
Lao meals typically consist of a soup dish, a grilled dish, a sauce, greens, and a stew or mixed dish (koy or laap). The greens are usually fresh raw greens, herbs and other vegetables, though depending on the dish they accompany, they could also be steamed or more typically, parboiled. Dishes are not eaten in sequence; the soup is sipped throughout the meal. Beverages, including water, are not typically a part of the meal. When guests are present, the meal is always a feast, with food made in quantities sufficient for twice the number of diners. For a host, not having enough food for guests would be humiliating.
The custom is to close the rice basket when one is finished eating.
- Jaew Mak Khua: Dips made from roasted eggplant
- Jaew Mak Len: Dips made from roasted sweet tomatoes
- Jaew Bong: sweet and spicy Lao paste made with roasted chilies, pork skin, galangal and other ingredients.
- Jaew Padeak: Dips made from fried padeak fish pieces, roast garlic, chililes, lemon grass, and other ingredients.
- Kaipen: fried snack made of fresh water algae, usually served with jaew bong
- Look seen:Lao beef meatballs
- Khua Pak Bong: stir fried water spinach
- Yor: Lao salad roll
- Som moo: pickled pork with pork skin (summer sausages)
- Som pa: pickled fish
- Som khai pa: pickled fish roe
- Som phak kad: pickled greens
- Som phak kai lum who moo: pickled cabbage with pickled pork ears
- Lao sausage (sai kok): chunky pork sausage
- Sai oua
- Seen hang: beef jerky that is flash-fried beef
- Khai khuam: stuffed eggs "upside down"
- Seen tork
- Seen savahn: thin sliced beef jerky with sweeter taste and covered with sesame seeds
- Khai nug: egg is cracked with a little hole at one end; contents poured out scrambled with spices and pour back into egg shell and steamed
- Mekong river moss, served fried
- Larb: a spicy Lao minced meat salad (Lao: ລາບ, Isan: ลาบ, Lao pronunciation: [lâːp])
- Larb Pa: fish salad
- Larb Ped: duck salad
- Larb Gai: chicken salad
- Larb Moo: pork salad
- Larb Ngua: beef salad
- Tam som: is the following salads made with Lao chili peppers, lime juice, tomatoes, fish sauce/paste, sugar, crab paste and shrimp paste (last 2 items can be left out in the dish)
- Tam mak hoong (Lao: ຕໍາໝາກຫຸ່ງ, Isan: ตำบักหุ่ง, Lao pronunciation: [tàm.ma᷆ːk.hūŋ]): spicy green papaya salad
- Pon: spicy puree of cooked fish
- Tam mak guh: spicy green plantans (bananas) salad
- Tam mak thou: spicy green long/yard beans salad
- (Tam mak taeng) Cucumber salad: spicy cucumber salad
- Tam kow phun: spicy vermicelli noodles salad
- Tum mak khauh: spicy eggplant salad
- Or lam: Luang Prabang style green vegetable stew
- Or: green vegetable stew
- Kaeng nor mai: (Lao: ຊຸບໜໍ່ໄມ່, Isan: ซุบหน่อไม้, Lao pronunciation: [sūp.nɔ̄ː.mâj]): green bamboo stew
- Tom padaek: fish stewed in padaek
- Kaeng kalee: Lao curry
- Tom jeaw pa: spicy fish soup
- Ping gai: grilled marinated chicken (ປິງໄກ່, Lao pronunciation: [pîːŋ.kāj], Isan: ไก่ย่าง, Lao pronunciation: [kāj.ɲāːŋ])
- Ping pa: grilled fish mixed with Spiced and Herbs.
- Ping sin: grilled marinated beef
- Ping moo: grilled marinated pork
- Ping ped: grilled marinated duck
- Ping theen gai: grilled marinated chicken feet
- Ping huwah ped: grilled marinated duck head (more of an appetizer)
- Sin dat: "Lao BBQ", traditional meat and vegetables seared on a dome-shaped griddle
- Mok pa: fish steamed in banana leaf
- Mok gai: chicken steamed in banana leaf
- Mok khai
- Mok kai pa
- Ua dok kae
- Titi gai: steak in a banana leaf wrap
- Nam khao: Crispy rice salad made with deep-fried rice balls, chunks of fermented pork sausage called som moo, chopped peanuts, grated coconut, sliced scallions or shallots, mint, cilantro, lime juice, fish sauce, and other ingredients.
- Khua khao: Fried rice
- Khao ping or khao chee: baked sticky rice seasoned with eggs. The word "khao chee" is also used for bread.
- Khao piak khao: Rice porridge
- Khao niao: Steamed sticky rice
- Khao chow: Steamed white rice
- Khao piak sen: Lao noodle soup
- Khao poon: rice vermicelli soup, also known as "Lao laksa"
- Mee kati
- Mee num
- Pad sen lon: stir-fried glass noodles
- Yum sen lon: tangy salad made with glass noodles
- Khua mee: pan-fried rice noodles topped with thinly sliced egg omelette
- Pad Lao: stir-fried noodles mixed with lightly scrambled egg
- Lard na: stir-fried noodles covered in gravy
- Drunken noodles: stir-fried broad rice noodles
- Lao suki
- Num wahn: Directly translates to "sweet water" which can contain tapioca and various fruits
- Voon: Lao jelly made with coconut milk
- Khao pard
- Khao tom: steamed rice wrapped in banana leaf
- Khao khohp
- Khanom maw kaeng: coconut custard cake
- Sweet steamed pumpkin
- Fruits: water melon, pineapple, sugar apple, (custard apple or sweetsop), longan, litchi, Asian pear, mango, rose apple (water apple), banana, jackfruit, rambutan, young coconut, orange, sweet tamarind, papaya, durian, sugarcane, pomelo, sapodilla, guava, star apple, mangosteen, melon, santol, langsat, grapes, corossolier (soursop), mak yom, mak num nom
- Num Mak Nao
- Num Pun
- Sugarcane juice
- Fruit juice
- Num mak pow: Coconut juice; with or without coconut meat
- Ol' Lien: Iced coffee; black or with condensed milk
Lao coffee is often called Pakxong coffee (cafe pakxong in Lao), which is grown on the Bolovens Plateau around the town of Pakxong. This area is sometimes said to be the best place in Southeast Asia for coffee cultivation. Both Robusta and Arabica are grown in Laos, and if you ask for Arabica, there is a very good chance the proprietor will know what you are talking about. Most of the Arabica in Laos is consumed locally and most of the Robusta is exported to Thailand, where it goes into Nescafé. The custom in Laos is to drink coffee in glasses, with condensed milk in the bottom, followed by a chaser of green tea. The highly regarded tea is also grown on the Bolovens Plateau.
There are two general types of traditional alcoholic beverages, both produced from rice: lao hai and lao lao. Lao hai means jar alcohol and is served from an earthen jar. It is communally and competitively drunk through straws at festive occasions. It can be likened to sake in appearance and flavor. Lao lao or Lao alcohol is more like a whiskey. It is also called lao khao or, in English, white alcohol. However, there is also a popular variant of lao lao made from purple rice, which has a pinkish hue.
In more recent times, the Lao state-owned brewery's Beerlao has become ubiquitous in Laos and is highly regarded by expatriates and residents alike. The Bangkok Post has described it as the Dom Perignon of Asian beers. In 2004, Time magazine described it as Asia's best beer. In June 2005, it beat 40 other brews to take the silver prize at Russia's Osiris Beer Festival, which it had entered for the first time.
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