BANGKOK (Reuters) - Street vendors selling deep-fried insects as snacks are a familiar sight in Bangkok, but a Thai entrepreneur is trying to give edible bugs a more upmarket appeal.
Panitan Tongsiri will launch his "HiSo", short for high-society, brand of seasoned insect snacks in March and plans to stock them at gourmet food markets around the Thai capital.
Crunchy crickets and worms would be a delicacy available in plain salt, cheese, seaweed and barbecue flavors at 25 baht (less than $1) per pack, said the 29-year-old businessman.
"I want to elevate its level from what is considered street food into something safe and modern," Panitan told Reuters.
Though many in the West shy away from fried worms and cicadas, the United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) has said eating insects has health benefits and they could be a food source for the world's growing population.
"Insects are a highly nutritious and healthy food source with high fat, protein, vitamin, fiber and mineral content," the FAO said in a 2013 report.
Bettina Lasbeck, 52, was one of the first to try the HiSo insect snacks at a tasting session in Bangkok.
"It tastes better than I thought," she said.
Crickets and worm snacks are sold outside bustling pubs and bars in Thailand and neighboring countries, usually as an accompaniment to beer and whisky.
But the Southeast Asian working-class snack is slowly finding a place in gourmet European cuisine. French culinary arts school Le Cordon Bleu held a seminar on "Edible Insects in a Gastronomic Context" in Bangkok earlier this month.
"It's been a challenge to overcome our own prejudices about insects," Christophe Mercier, an instructor at the Paris-based school, told Reuters.
"For most of the Westerners in the team, including me, it took some courage to break the psychological barrier," he said.
Mercier said he was pleasantly surprised by the results, adding that extracting the flavors could lead to "infinite applications in cooking".
The market potential for HiSo delicacies is huge, both in terms of taste and as food security, said Panitan.
But the insects could still be hard to swallow.
"If you eat without looking, no problem," said Ron Lavive as he tried fried worms for the first time on the streets of Bangkok. "If I look, not good."
Additional reporting by Jutarat Skulpichetrat; Editing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Tony Tharakan