Monkey brains

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Simulated monkey brains displayed at Tao Heung Museum of Food Culture, Hong Kong, as part of a Manchu Han Imperial Feast

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.[1]


It is unclear whether monkey brains have ever been served in a restaurant or whether the practice itself is an urban legend.[2] While the legendary dish was historically a part of the Manchu Han Imperial banquet of the Qing empire,[3] where it may have been eaten directly from the skull,[4] modern day official Chinese policy 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.[5] 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.[2]

Beyond Asia and into Africa, naturalist Angela Meder has described in Gorilla Journal a cultural practice of the Anaang people of southeastern Nigeria and southwestern Cameroon, whereby a new tribal chief would consume the brain of a hunted gorilla while another senior member of the tribe consumed the heart. According to this account, the practice occurred 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.[6]

Health risks[edit]

Consuming the brain and other nervous system tissues of some animals is considered hazardous to human health, possibly resulting in transmissible encephalopathies such as Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease.[7][8][9]

Media depictions[edit]

One notorious fictional[10] depiction of the consumption of monkey brains is from the 1978 mondo film Faces of Death, directed by John Alan Schwartz.[11] 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."[12] 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.[10] 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.[10][11] 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.[11]

Additional depictions in the decade following the release of Faces of Death contain scenes which reference the practice, including one from the 1984 film Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,[1] as well as dialogue from the 1985 comedy Clue.[13] 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."[14][10]

Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ a b Rodewald, Lucas Alan (2016). "The Adventures of Teaching Indiana Jones in the World of the Other". Misrepresentation at the Movies: Film, Pedagogy, and Postcolonial Theory in the Secondary English Classroom (Masters thesis). Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University. pp. 22–34. Document No. 10126564 – via ProQuest Dissertations Publishing. 
  2. ^ a b Schreiber, Mark (8 August 2002). "Debunking Strange Asian Myths: Part II". The Japan Times. The Japan Times Ltd. Retrieved 4 August 2017. 
  3. ^ Gayley, Holly (1 March 2017). "The Compassionate Treatment of Animals". Journal of Religious Ethics. 45 (1): 42. doi:10.1111/jore.12167. ISSN 1467-9795. 
  4. ^ Gayley, Holly (2013). "Reimagining Buddhist Ethics on the Tibetan Plateau" (PDF). Journal of Buddhist Ethics. 20: 264. ISSN 1076-9005. Each dish is described in excruciating detail, including the infamous case of eating live monkey brains right out of the skull. 
  5. ^ Li, Peter J. (22 July 2016). "Enforcing Wildlife Protection in China" (PDF). China Information. 21 (1): 76–77, 80. doi:10.1177/0920203x07075082. 
  6. ^ Meder, Angela (June 1999). "Gorillas in African Culture and Medicine" (PDF). Gorilla Journal. 18: 3. Retrieved 22 September 2014. 
  7. ^ Legg, N.J.; Thomson, Alexa (February 1972). "Multiple Sclerosis and the Eating of Sheep's Brains". The Lancet. 299 (7746). doi:10.1016/s0140-6736(72)92892-9. 
  8. ^ "Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease after Eating Ovine Brains?". New England Journal of Medicine. 292 (17): 927–927. 24 April 1975. doi:10.1056/NEJM197504242921721. ISSN 0028-4793. 
  9. ^ Berger, Joseph R; Weisman, Erick; Weisman, Beverly (August 1997). "Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease and Eating Squirrel Brains". The Lancet. 350 (9078). doi:10.1016/s0140-6736(05)63333-8. 
  10. ^ a b c d Carter, David Ray (2010). "It's Only A Movie? Reality as Transgression in Exploitation Cinema". In Cline, John; Weiner, Robert J. From the Arthouse to the Grindhouse: Highbrow and Lowbrow Transgression in Cinema's First Century. Scarecrow Press. p. 307. ISBN 9780810876552. 
  11. ^ a b c Hickey, Brian (2012). "Open The Skull: The Faces Of Death Guy Looks Back". Deadspin. Archived from the original on 24 April 2018. 
  12. ^ Faces of Death (Motion picture). Directed by John Alan Schwartz (credited as 'Conan LeCilaire'). Written by John Alan Schwartz (credited as 'Alan Black'). Cinematography by Michael Golden. Edited by James Roy. Music by Gene Kauer. Produced by William B. James, Herbie Lee and Rosilyn T. Scott. Aquarius Releasing. 10 November 1978. ISBN 9780788609329. OCLC 432163437. Feeling that the foreigners were comfortable within his domain, the waiter signals for the house specialty. 
  13. ^ Clue (Motion picture). Directed by Jonathan Lynn. Story by John Landis and Jonathan Lynn. Screenplay by Jonathan Lynn. Cinematography by Victor J. Kemper. Edited by David Bretherton and Richard Haines. Music by John Morris. Produced by Debra Hill. Paramount / PolyGram. 13 December 1985. ISBN 9780792166214. OCLC 1004377222. Monkey's brains, though popular in Cantonese cuisine, are not often to be found in Washington, D.C. 
  14. ^ Arjana, Sophia Rose (2015). Muslims in the Western Imagination. Oxford University Press. p. 143. ISBN 9780199324927.