Monkey brains is a dish consisting of, at least partially, the brain of some species of monkey or ape. In Western popular culture, its consumption is repeatedly portrayed and debated, often in the context of portraying exotic cultures as exceptionally cruel, callous, and/or strange.
It is unclear whether monkey brains have ever been served in a restaurant or whether the practice itself is an urban legend. While the legendary dish was historically a part of the Manchu Han Imperial banquet of the Qing empire, modern day official Chinese policies with regards to the procurement of certain wildlife species makes the serving of monkey brains illegal, with sentences of up to 10 years in prison for violators. Additionally, initial confusion over a translated term for the edible mushroom hericium may have played a part in the belief, as this mushroom is called hóu tóu gū (simplified: 猴头菇; traditional: 猴頭菇; lit. "monkey head mushroom") in Chinese.
Beyond Asia and into Africa, naturalist Angela Meder describes in Gorilla Journal a cultural practice of the Anaang people of southeastern Nigeria and southwestern Cameroon, whereby a new tribal chief consumes the brain of a hunted gorilla while another senior member of the tribe consumes the heart. According to this account, the practice occurs only in the specific instance of a new chiefdom, as the killing of gorillas would otherwise be forbidden. This tradition was reported as deprecated by the beginning of the 21st century.
Consuming the brain and other nervous system tissues of animals is considered hazardous to human health, possibly resulting in transmissible encephalopathies such as Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease.
One notorious fictional depiction of the consumption of monkey brains is from the 1978 mondo film Faces of Death, directed by John Alan Schwartz. The scene depicts an Eastern-themed restaurant with patrons seated around a table watching a belly dance. A narrator explains that these are tourists who have come to this location to consume "the house specialty." The proprietor signals for a server to bring out a monkey, which is then secured inside a pen built into the table. The tourists are given hammers, and they proceed to hit the monkey on the head until it is killed. The server then cuts open the skull and removes the monkey's brains onto a plate for the patrons to sample. Although believed by many viewers at the time of its release to be true, the director Schwartz has admitted that the scene, like much of the film, is pure fiction. The hammers were made of foam, while the 'monkey's head' was actually a prop filled with gelatin, red food coloring, and cauliflower to simulate brain matter.
Additional depictions in the decade following the release of Faces of Death were seemingly influenced by the scene, including one from the 1984 film Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, as well as dialogue from the 1985 comedy Clue. In addition to their shock value, what the scenes have in common are their representations of Orientalism, which according to author Sophia Rose Arjana, work as a cinematic trope used "to conflate bizarre and vulgarized representations of the Far East", in order to advance beliefs regarding the dangers "non-Christians pose to 'civilized' Westerners."
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Monkey's brains, though popular in Cantonese cuisine, are not often to be found in Washington, D.C.
- Arjana, Sophia Rose (2015). Muslims in the Western Imagination. Oxford University Press. p. 143. ISBN 9780199324927.