no monkey brains for you

Another one bites the dust. Looks like the “live monkey brains for dinner” story is a big fib.

Date: Wed, 14 Aug 2002 21:29:28 +0100
From: Rachel Carthy (spam-protected)
To: (spam-protected)
Subject: Yet another legend bites the dust

Thursday, August 8, 2002

Debunking strange Asian myths: Part II

Do Chinese really pig out on live monkey brains? The writer couldn’t find one who has


This story began over a beer in a Kabukicho restaurant, when an adventuresome Canadian lassie named Christine, who had requested a tour of Shinjuku’s sleazier hangouts, leaned suggestively across the table and asked me in a husky voice if I had ever eaten monkey brains.

I hadn’t. And for that matter, I certainly wouldn’t. Medical textbooks say eating simian gray matter can give you kuru, a disorder similar to mad cow disease.

For those unfamiliar with this famous tale — featured in the documentary films “Mondo Cane” and “Faces of Death” — consumption of monkey brains calls for a live monkey (species not specified) to be immobilized by a collar in the center of a table designed specially for such a purpose. A tool of some sort is used to whack open his skull, upon which the live, bloody gray matter is apportioned to eagerly awaiting diners.

Christine’s question was my cue to embellish on this story, so that I might take perverse pleasure in watching her squirm with disgust.

But I thought for a moment and realized that, after three and a half decades of wandering around Asia — and eating things that might indeed invoke repugnance on the part of squeamish Westerners — I had yet to partake in this delicacy. I have met exactly two individuals who “claim” to have done so, both Americans and otherwise upstanding citizens, who seemed a bit irritated by my skepticism.

“It’s an urban legend,” I told her. “Nobody really eats monkey brains.”

Her countenance reflected an expression of rapt disappointment.

Well, I thought, perhaps this is as good an opportunity as any to lay this story to rest. So I began sending out e-mails to an assortment of old Asia hands — ex-military men, businessmen, government employees, missionaries, guide book editors. I also fired off queries to about a dozen Chinese chefs. Everybody knew the story. Nobody had ever actually partaken of such a meal, or witnessed a monkey meet its maker in such a cruel manner.

A few got a good chuckle out of letting their imaginations run wild.

“Most Chinese places do a lousy job on monkey brains,” one Washington D.C. acquaintance replied, tongue in cheek. “I have a friend who is a high ranking patron of the Friends of the National Zoo and he gets me anything I need. It’s not too difficult to prepare at home — the most difficult part is holding the little bastards still without getting bitten.”

I also succeeded in getting columnist Cecil Adams to post my query on The Straight Dope web site, and drew quite a few responses. One message, from Gopinath Nagaraj, was of particular interest, and I include it here in its entirety.

“The story of the monkey being shackled under a table only to have its skull removed and its brain scooped out while it is still alive originates apparently in a newspaper report to that effect sometime in 1948, when a columnist (I’ve forgotten his name) wrote a tongue-in-cheek column on the feeding habits of ethnic Chinese. He was also apparently responsible for the saying that the Chinese eat everything in the water except submarines, everything in the air except airplanes and everything with legs except furniture.

“He confessed in a revelation some time back (shortly before his death) that he had no idea that the monkey brain story would take on the dimension of an urban legend, but there you are. I am inclined to believe him because in my numerous travels, I have visited many Chinese restaurants, and, while all have heard the story, none have witnessed the event.”

Oh yes; in my exhaustive search I did find a restaurant in Beijing with “monkey’s brain” on the menu. But get this: it’s a vegetarian establishment. The “brain” is likely to be tofu, which in Chinese is colorfully described as nao (brains) in certain types of cuisine. And when I asked a Chinese chef in my neighborhood what he knew about monkey brains, he brandished a transparent bag of brown, fuzzy mushrooms labeled hou-tou (monkey’s head), imported from China.

And that’s as close as I succeeded in getting to the bottom, or rather the “top” of this famous story.

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  1. Mariano Moldes
    Posted January 13, 2007 at 02:42 | Permalink

    I have really enjoyed Mark Schreiber’s article on this infamous urban legend which I have devoted big efforts to debunk.

    I’m from Buenos Aires (Argentina) and heard it for the first time back in 1979 when a wave of Boat People was expected with mischief. An old-fashioned humanist I was shocked to the point of skepticism by the pointless cruelty of this practice, as well as by its purported universality. My faith in humankind is different from the archetypal Pollyanna’s: I acknowledge thing such as the Spanish Inquisition, Auschwitz, Unit 731 etc., etc. However, these are aberrations: the live monkey brain feast (LBMF) urban legend had it that the average, reasonably westernized Chinese -not a singular schizoid Chinese or a sadistic 1920s warlord- enjoyed the atrocious torture of a helpless animal. In this Argentine version the Spanish rendering of the dish name was ‘Sesos de mono colErico’ -“choleric” [=furious] monkey brain, alluding to the fact that the animal was screaming and biting.

    Later in life I joined a skeptic organization and studied urban legends as a social phenomenon. Now the matter was clear enough: all LMBF accounts came from some FOAF, not a single one being firs-hand. In 1997 I wrote an article in a scientific popularisation magazine on urban legends. Even if we rhetorically conceded that the Chinese enjoyed LMBF, it was hard to believe that they regularly offered it to Western VIP guests, as they had come to perfect their entertaining to the point of an artistic genre in itself. You pamper the European/ American visitor, you take him to parades and stage acts, you feed him the utmost delicacies -then you put him in front of a table facing a hysterical screaming monkey with a hole in its head and wish him ‘bon appEtit!’…

    I proposed a series of ways to explain it away -your “tofu” version resounds well with one of them, based on the fancy Spanish name I had heard. What if ‘choleric monkey brains’ was just a mistranslation [presumably due to the listener’s tone-deafness] or even a literal translation of a local idiom? Two examples close to home render it more verosimile.

    In Argentina, the popular name for the ‘Berliner’ baking specialty is ‘bola de fraile’ -literally, ‘friar’s ball’… There is also a dish called ‘ni[N*]os envueltos’ [wrapped-up kids] consisting of stewed lettuce-leaf rolls filled with cooked rice and mincemeat.

    Taking names at face value, people from faraway lands are entitled to believe that infants are often cooked for lunch or dinner, while fresh-cut family jewels of Catholic clerics are a frequent choice for breakfast and tea time.

  2. Julian Kerrell-Vaughan
    Posted February 6, 2007 at 23:05 | Permalink

    I have been a teacher in Hong Kong for the past eleven years. I had several times heard the story of eating monkey brains but could not bring myself to believe in such wicked cruelty despite seeing the way that other creatures are done to death in the wet markets here.

    However, recently, I have been assured by the grandmother of one of my students that she was present when live monkey brains were consumed on the Mainland although she did not herself eat them. Another student, whose father comes from Suzhou, assures me that the story is not a myth and that his father has also seen monkey brains served. Apparently today the monkey is intoxicated with rice wine before being strapped under the table. The brains are eaten with pickled ginger, chili, and sometimes fresh coriander. They have very little flavour, and rather like the custom of feeding dog to one’s wife to ensure that she remains faithful, or of businessmen eating cat (something I saw in Guangzhou – I couldn’t continue my meal or eat for the remainder of the weekend) in order to make them ‘more cunning and stealthy’, eating monkey brains is believed to enhance the intelligence.

    Being half-French I eat most things without qualms – pig intestines, sheeps’ testicles et alia – but I would and could not eat anything that was caused to suffer so atrociously. For this very reason I wouldn’t dream of eating fois gras or frogs’ legs.