Street Food No More: Bug Snacks Move To Store Shelves In Thailand

Originally published on April 15, 2015 7:37 pm

C'mon, who doesn't like bugs in a bag? Crunchy little critters that are good and good for you? Panitan Tongsiri is hoping the answer is: no one.

The 29-year-old Thai entrepreneur is trying to change the way Thais eat insects — OK, the way some Thais eat insects — one bag at a time.

On the streets of Bangkok, you can buy just about any kind of food you can imagine. And more you probably don't want to. Pad Thai, spicy stir-fried shrimp with noodles, thick red chicken curries would fall into the first category. Fried silkworm larvae, grasshoppers or stir-fried bees might fall into the latter.

Many Thais — in fact, many people all over the world — eat insects. And Panitan is hoping to expand the market in Thailand by bringing deep-fried insects off the street and into convenience stores and gourmet shops. He believes there's a vast, untapped market out there, and he wants to plug the hole.

"Thai people have been eating insects for a long time," he says. "The traditional way is to buy it from a street vendor. But nowadays, when you want to buy edible insects, you have to wait for a street vendor to come. That's the first problem."

The second, he says, is hygiene. I mean, who wants to eat dirty bugs?

"They don't have any real quality control or any standards. And the third problem is perception of edible insects, for some people. They are on the news on TV often, but it's always bad news. People eat insects, then they go to the hospital. So we have to solve all these three problems at once."

Panitan is a graduate of Bangkok's prestigious Chulalongkorn University, with a degree in psychology and a keen interest in marketing and design. His company has been selling bugs in a bottle for a couple of years now, with mixed success. So he and his partners decided to build the brand by targeting young people, and those just entering the workforce, who haven't eaten bugs before or had a chance to form a bad impression of the practice — television notwithstanding.

The HiSo brand of fried silkworm pupae and crickets is the result. These snacks come in small, colorful, potato chip-size bags that extol the health benefits of crispy critters — something the United Nations is on board with, too. A 2013 report by the U.N.'s Food and Agricultural Organization suggests that edible insects could help offset food insecurity as the world's population increases — they're high in protein, vitamins and fiber.

Panitan and his partners are doing their bit: They're already churning out their new bugs-in-a-bag in a factory on the outskirts of the capital. Two women in white smocks and hairnets clean and prep the insects that arrive quick-frozen from the farm where they're sourced. The bugs are inspected, then taken into the kitchen for deep-frying.

Panitan can't show me the frying station. It's a sterile area, and you need a health certificate to be able to enter. Even he can't go in. So we go upstairs to sample the product.

"We have four flavors: seaweed, barbecue, cheese and original, which is soy sauce and pepper," he explains. "The most popular is the original, because people are used to it —it's the same taste as the street vendors."

"We produce many flavors to attract people who haven't tried before," he goes on. "They're used to barbecue, seaweed and cheese from other snacks. So we have to link behavior" — here's where his interests in psychology and marketing meet – "to these flavors." For now, the product line is limited to just two insects, silkworm pupae and the house cricket.

Not grasshopper. Cricket. I try the seaweed flavor, which is OK as far as crunchiness, but the taste? Uh-uh. For thoroughness, I also sample the cheesy silkworm larvae and the barbecue cricket. Not impressed with those, either. In fact, the original flavor turns out to be my favorite. And Panitan's, too.

I go back into the city to get a real bug eater's opinion and find 32-year-old Patcharee Sanpantana, who works at a small boutique hotel in the Sukhumvit area. She's skeptical — fresh is best, she says — but is willing to try.

She starts with the original, which she calls "pretty good" and "salty." The seaweed crickets are a no-go, but the cheesy silkworm larvae are pretty good, too, she says. Most important, she says she'd definitely pay the asking price of 25 baht a bag (about 75 cents) to eat them again.

And then a customer walks into the hotel, a Brit named Adam Bennington, and I offer him a taste. He gamely accepts. His face brightens after a go at the cheesy crickets.

"That's not bad at all," he says, adding, "If I was going to sit down and have a few drinks and someone was to present me with a bowl of those, I would not not eat them. I'd still like crisps or chips or nuts, like anybody else, but it's nice to have something different."

Panitan isn't just waiting for word of mouth to increase his brand's popularity. He also has a small fleet of tricked-out motorcycle carts that spread the bug-eating gospel on the streets of Bangkok.

He says he has no plans to export his snacks outside Southeast Asia just yet, though several U.S. and European firms are already buying his cricket powder. And in a few months, his new factory will open and expand production tenfold.

"Our company is ready for the world," he says. "If you want to order any kind of edible insect in any form, we're ready. And our clients have the same vision as us, see the future."

The future: bugs in a bag, coming soon to a 7-Eleven near you?

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A Thai entrepreneur is working on a new way to present a traditional snack - think bugs in a bag the way we buy potato or corn chips in this country. Michael Sullivan got a taste.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Here in Bangkok, you can buy just about any kind of food you could imagine on the street and some more you probably don't want to. Fried silkworm larvae, grasshoppers, caterpillars, bees - you name it, they've got it. But there's a couple of drawbacks for those who go in for this kind of thing - one is cleanliness. Street food isn't always all that sanitary, and who wants to eat a dirty bug? And there are fewer bug vendors these days. And that's where the HiSo brand bugs in a bag come in.

PANITAN TONGSIRI: My name is Panitan Tongsiri, and I'm 29 years old.

SULLIVAN: Panitan is a university grad with a psychology degree and a keen interest in marketing and design. And he's on a mission to make insects more accessible to those who already want them and more attractive to those who might not. And he's got ammunition from the UN Food and Agricultural Organization to help him.

TONGSIRI: A couple years ago, FAO just announced this is the food of the future. They are high protein. They have many benefits.

SULLIVAN: Panitan's company is already making bugs in a bag in their factory on the outskirts of the capital. Here, their silkworm larvae and crickets are cleaned, sorted and cooked in a spotless high-tech kitchen - the insects, sourced from a nearby farm, quick frozen, then shipped here for inspection.

So this process, if you have, say, a kilo of crickets here, you're going to lose about how much?

TONGSIRI: Five percent.

SULLIVAN: Heads, tails, things that don't belong.

TONGSIRI: Yeah, because we selected from the best farm, they do the quality-control for us before they ship the frozen insects here.

SULLIVAN: Panitan can't show me the frying station. It's a sterile area. Even he can't go in. So we go upstairs to sample the product, which comes in small, colorful potato chip-sized bags whose packaging extols the health benefits of crispy critters.

TONGSIRI: We have four flavors right now - seaweed, barbecue and cheese and original.

SULLIVAN: OK, then, let's try some. I start with seaweed-flavored crickets.

(SOUNDBITE OF PACKAGING RUSTLING)

SULLIVAN: Crunchy - OK, I'm not impressed. Next one.

TONGSIRI: (Laughter) OK.

SULLIVAN: Not bad, I'm just - not my favorite. Next?

TONGSIRI: This is the most famous one - it's a health cricket with original flavor - soy sauce and pepper.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRUNCHING)

SULLIVAN: That's my favorite. Which one's your favorite?

TONGSIRI: Same (laughter) - the original one.

SULLIVAN: Old school?

TONGSIRI: Yeah, old school.

SULLIVAN: I also tried the cheesy silkworm larvae and the barbecue, just be thorough - not impressed with those, either. Panitan says he makes the other flavors to attract people who haven't tried bugs before in hopes of getting them onboard. He's also got a small fleet of tricked out motorcycle carts that spread the bug-eating gospel on the streets of Bangkok, which is where I go for a real taste test.

So now I've come back to my favorite hotel where I'm going to ask my friend who's at the front desk, Patcharee, what she thinks of this, because I don't think she's seen any of these.

Have you seen any of these yet?

PATCHAREE SANPANTANA: No.

SULLIVAN: And are you willing to be my Thai guinea pig and try these?

SANPANTANA: Yes, sure.

SULLIVAN: Which one are you going to try first?

SANPANTANA: I would like to try the original one.

Yes. This one is good. It's healthy.

SULLIVAN: Yep. It's good?

SANPANTANA: Yes.

SULLIVAN: Would you buy this for 25 baht a pack?

SANPANTANA: Yes, sure.

SULLIVAN: Twenty-five baht is about 75 cents a bag. Like me, she's not impressed with the seaweed-flavored crickets, but is surprised the rest are so good, though she says fresh is almost always best.

Panitan Tongsiri has no plans to export his snacks outside of Southeast Asia just yet, though several U.S. and European firms are already buying his cricket powder and his new factory will open in a few months that will expand production tenfold.

TONGSIRI: Our company is ready for the world. If you want to order any kind of edible insect in any form, we're ready. I mean, our clients, they all have the same vision as us. They see the future.

SULLIVAN: The future - bugs in a bag, coming soon to a 7-Eleven near you. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Bangkok. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.