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?
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.
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