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Thursday, Aug. 8, 2002
THE ZEIT GIST
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.