A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

In Asia, do people scoop the brains out of a monkey's skull and eat them?

March 9, 2001

Dear Cecil:

Numerous tales originating in Asia (usually Hong Kong, although I have also seen references to Singapore, Thailand, India, Japan, Korea, etc.) describe restaurants that serve monkey brains. The procedure for preparation is usually described thusly: A live monkey is brought to the table and immobilized by having his head thrust through a metal collar. In some versions scalding water is poured over his scalp to kill off the lice. Then a tool of some sort is used to smash the creature's skull, and its brains are scooped out and consumed raw. Can you establish any truth to this, or are we dealing with just another long-running urban legend?

Cecil replies:

Don't kid me, you slime — that scene in Hannibal got you salivating, didn't it? (Or maybe it was the one in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.) The idea seems so gross it can't possibly be true. But is it?

We began as we always do, by seeing what we could scare up on the Web. Plenty has been written about this. The Chinese, or at least those in Guangdong province, near Hong Kong, are said to prize all manner of bizarre foods, including bear's paw, snake, crocodile, dog, kangaroo, pigeon, frogs, sparrows, live baby mice ("good for ulcers"), newborn rats ("pinkies," swallowed whole and alive for asthma), lizards, worms seasoned in cheddar cheese and Mexican spices, fried ants, scorpions, smoked reindeer, moose, crickets, caterpillar larvae, and of course monkey brains.

We even got a lead on where we could score some brains, from the "Queer Food" page on a Web site called "Food in Singapore" (formerly at http://members.tripod.com/~zeoy/queer.html, but this address no longer works): "Rumours say that there is a stall beside Bedok Reservoir that sells monkey brains. We did not go down there to check that place out due to 3 simple reasons: 1)We do not put much faith in rumours; 2) Bedok is very far from our homes (Bedok is in the East and we are in the West); 3) Nobody in our group is daring enough to eat monkey brains. … However, if you happen to visit Bedok or live there, check it out for us."

Pups. But I knew just the guy to contact — our man in Singapore, Brooks. Described by even those fond of him as devious and conniving, Brooks would get to the bottom of this if anybody could. Sure enough, mere hours after sending him an urgent wire, we got word from him: They eat monkeys in Singapore all right.

"There's a small group of monkeys" near a marina on an Indonesian island a short distance from Singapore, Brooks wrote. He and his wife and their friend Tony

were walking along the pier, minding our own business, & CRACK — we hear a gun nearby. We look up & the customs guy is pointing a big revolver toward the marina. We freeze then start walking backwards to get behind a big cruiser. CRACK again. Then we hear Tony laughing with the customs guys. He says come on up — lunch will be ready in an hour.

Tony translates what happened. The customs guys shot a monkey out of the tree. You can't just shoot a monkey sitting in a tree, because they don't fall. They rot up there, hanging on. So first you shoot to get the monkey to jump. Then when he's scrambling, you shoot him & he'll fall.

We don't see any monkeys in the tree & don't see one on the ground — we figured he missed & Tony was joking about lunch. A while later as we're leaving, the Indonesians near the boat shed have a beach fire going & are cooking something in a big pot — and on a tree we see a monkey skin.

The driver taking us to the ferry terminal tells us that monkey meat is good. The brains are eaten raw, but he doesn't eat monkey ever since he saw one skinned — skinned ones look EXACTLY like human babies!

OK, so they weren't eating the brains. But we've established that Asians eat monkeys they've killed on the spot. Inquiring later, Brooks was told that while consumption of monkey brains is now generally illegal, the Chinese still eat them whenever they can get away with it. What's more, he had a friend, D., whose father, a 'baba' (ethnic Chinese), had eaten monkey brains himself. Here's what D. says his father told him:

The monkey's head was supported by its neck in a bracket, two pieces of wood with a semicircular hole on each side such that when you put them together, they form a complete circle around the animal's neck, allowing the head to be exposed above the plank. The hair around the head is shaven with a shaving razor. A small chisel and a hammer is used to quickly chisel a circle around the crown, and the top part of the skull is removed. A teaspoon is used to scoop up the brain, which is immediately eaten. This has to be done before the monkey dies.

According to D., this happened in 1948 or '49. Pops, now deceased, was an eyewitness but didn't say whether he'd partaken of the brains himself. Possibly he was jerking his kid around, but I've heard enough similar stories to make me think this is legit. Brooks, at any rate, remains on the case. We'll let you know what else we find out.

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