Live Monkey Brains
Most people probably have heard the tale of the barbaric foreigners who strap a live monkey down and eat its brains while it screams. It has even made it into the Hollywood mainstream in movies like "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom." The common aspects of this story, as it is almost always told, make it an excellent illustration of a classic urban legend.
Legends have traditionally been passed down orally and it is no different with the Live Monkey Brain legend. The following is the universal recipe for this legend:
- Take one (1) living monkey. The story does not work without the kicking and the screaming and the biting. Just eating monkey brain stew is not particularly interesting or shocking.
- Strap beneath special table with hole in center. The monkey must be strapped beneath a table with its head poking up through a hole.
- Bop monkey on the head, scoop and serve. The diners usually deliver the fatal blow themselves with hammers, the skull is sawed off and the brains are scooped out with spoons.
That's about as complex as the legend gets, but I'd like to add two special ingredients that you may not have noticed in your culinary excursions:
There are a few variation, but what makes this such a classic legend is that it is so consistent in its many tellings. For example, the location can be Asia or some Middle Eastern country, but it is always foreigners. Some locations I have heard or seen associated with this story are: Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Japan, Thailand, India, Africa and the Middle East.
The most common variation, by far, involves the Chinese. And the most common report is from Indonesians (or Western reporters in Indonesia) about ethnic Chinese Indonesians. If you ask someone from China about the legend, they will almost certainly have heard of it. If you ask them if it is true, as with all of the best legends, most people will say that it is indeed true and may even offer the "we Chinese eat anything with four legs that isn't a table" explanation. But if pressed for details, it will inevitably involve people from some other region, ethnic group or time.
I have collected a large number of references which I have critically annotated. It's not just a boring list, so you should definitely hop over and check out the movies and plays that feature monkey brain eating (including Italian porn from the 70s), lots of newspaper articles and even pictures of a woman eating monkey brains.
One of the best early references I have found is from a reporter in Japan who heard that the legend was started by a colorful columnist in 1948, but the story is much older and has Chinese origins. There are two important Chinese historical references. One is a legendary menu, called the "Man Han Quan Xi" ("The Manchu-Han Complete Banquet" - see title in Chinese at the end of the article), that is said to be from the ultimate Chinese feast and is supposed to contain the most exotic and wonderful foods from all over the empire. The menu (which no longer exists, but is referenced by other sources) is from the Qing Dynasty period, which peaked in the 18th century.
The other reference is from a book titled "ManTuoLuo Xuan XianHua" ("Casual Chat on Mantuolou's Veranda"), written by Zhang HaiOu in the mid-19th century. This text collects traditional Chinese medicine and food knowledge from various locales around China and in turn refers to an account by a general who traveled around China, possibly as early as the 16th century. He recounts a feast that he attended that included live monkey brain, which he described as being quite tasty. The previously mentioned Qing Dynasty menu and this 16th century report may or may not be distinct references, however, and both may come from the same source (e.g. the general traveled about and collected the dishes that ended up on the now-lost menu). Unfortunately, this is a literary-historical friend-of-a-friend tale, as I do not have access to this 19th century Chinese book and have not read the actual account, which of course refers to the other older source, of which I know basically nothing (not even the title). While this is all very interesting, hunting down primary source documents in classical Chinese far exceeds my abilities and the patience of my Chinese friends (who are far less obsessed with monkey brains than I am).
In any case, there is little doubt that this classic legend is probably as old as time itself, first told by Java Man to Lucy about the exotic eating habits of barbaric Peking Man.
Is It True?
The main purpose of this article is to discuss the canonical Live Monkey Brain feast. As a legend, it is a classic in every way and is particularly interesting because of its age and the extent of the documentation surrounding it, whether it is true or false.
- Eating live monkey brains as a delicacy is highly unlikely and the canonical tale is almost certainly not true. Key elements are unbelievable and undocumented. This includes that the monkey is live (and conscious), strapped below the table and that the diners excitedly bop the screaming, kicking monkey on the head, while blood squirts all around. Then they presumably wipe off the blood, have a good laugh and enjoy the delicious brains. Yum!
- Eating live monkey brains as medicine is much more believable, but I'd only put even money on it. This is not the standard version of the tale, but it is a horrific and commonly reported variation. Paying money to have the chef prepare fresh monkey brain sushi is only one step removed from selecting a lobster from a tank and boiling it alive.
- Eating fresh (but not live) monkey brains as medicine is more likely still , given the large number of reports. Powdered monkey brain in a medicine shop seems quite plausible. Still, there is always room of skepticism.
- Eating cooked monkey brains is also believable. Monkey brain stew might even taste good.
Don't take my word for it. Check out my extensive annotated references and see for yourself: everyone has heard this story, no one has thought very critically about it and no one has ever seen a live monkey brain feast first hand.
The Chinese and Exotic Foods
Monkey brains are a special case of the more general legends about the disgusting things that the Chinese eat. More about this is written in another article.
Chinese References - referred to in the story above: