Monkey Brains

The column in question.

Just to say, I have lived in Thailand literally for decades, traveled extensively throughout Southeast Asia, spent time in East and South Asia. And not once, not ever, have I heard of monkey brains being eaten, not seen it happening, not seen them offered in any restaurant.

I can’t speak for monkey brains, but some of the other foodstuffs listed by Cecil aren’t so bizarre. Smoked reindeer is widely available in Scandinavia (and, I expect, anywhere else where there are a lot of reindeer) and is delicious - God, I wish I had some right now! It’s like a meaty, chewy version of smoked salmon.

Crocodile curry and snake soup are both available in tins in my local Chinese supermarket. Snake soup is kind of blah, but crocodile curry is OK - kind of like a tougher version of chicken.

Pigeon breasts and pigeon pie are widely available at game dealers, farmers’ markets and country restaurants in the UK. You need quite a few pigeon breasts to make a good meal, pigeons not being so blessed in the breast department as chickens. The pigeons which are eaten are rural wood pigeons, not the verminous urban type - ‘rats with wings’, as Woody Allen once described them.

Everyone knows that the French eat frogs’ legs, and they are a bit chicken-like and rubbery. Chocolate-covered ants are allegedly sold in France as well, though I haven’t personally indulged.

And finally crickets - which admittedly are a bit bizarre, at least to western palates - I ate a packet of paprika flavour crickets once, which were a bit dry and dusty, though admittedly they were past their sell-by date.

Here you go … from the original “Faces of Death” series.


Just in case anyone thinks that is genuine…

There’s a teriyaki restaurant in my town that serves “monkey brains”.

By which they mean an avocado stuffed with spicy tuna, surimi, and cream cheese, then breaded and deep-fried.

It’s delicious.

I wonder what that good chap Brooks is up to these days. He sounds like something from a Graham Greene novel, or perhaps The English Patient.

[quote=“Colophon, post:4, topic:716006”]

Just in case anyone thinks that is genuine…


I was expecting this infamous scene, actually (from a certain Harrison Ford movie)…

Crickets, spiders, easily available in SE Asia.

You know, I travelled extensively in southern China in the 1980’s bordering Viet Nam, Kampuchea, Burma, etc and never found monkey brains. If it was findable, I would have found it. It’s an urban legend.

Plus, just think about the actual process. STrap in the monkey, split open the skull, and monkey evacuates it’s bladder and bowels. That would make for a GREAT dining experience.



Just to be clear, yes, all sorts of insects are on offer in Southeast Asia, particularly in Northeast Thailand (it’s only the Northeasterners who eat bugs, not all Thais as is popularly perceived. The other Thais look down on them for it.) And disgusting foods such as fermented raw fish (again in northeastern Thailand) and durian. And in Changchun, China I once visited a restaurant whose theme was cuisine eaten during the Cultural Revolution – that is, insects and such. But never have I encountered monkey brains in any way, shape or form, and like China Guy, I think I would have by now if it were not an Urban Legend.

“Monkey brains” was a standard kid gross-out around this family until they were too old for it to be funny any more. I announced them for dinner frequently when I was pestered.

You make it sound like I can just bop into my local grocery anywhere and buy some spiders. As a long-term resident of Indonesia who has also resided briefly in Singapore, I can assure you this is not true. “SE Asia” is a ridiculously broad category.

This issue is reminding me of the persistent claims there are opium dens somewhere in Asia to the modern day, I’ve been seeing these claims in articles and books back to the 70s and it is always someone claimed to have visited one, or they did but they just closed the last one down.

I saw an article recently where the writer claimed he visited some, but wouldn’t you know it the authorities closed the last of them just last year!

I haven’t been to Indonesia, but I’ve eaten fried spiders in several other SE Asian countries, and yes, I could “bop” into many places ranging from a girl sitting with a can of fried insects on the sidewalk or restaurants to get them. My point was that as compared to monkey brains, they are reasonably available in the region. Point taken, not Indonesia.

Or Singapore.

Why not just specify the countries you mean? Cambodia? Lao? Myanmar? Brunei? Vietnam? Thailand?

Apologies if I seem a bit fixated on this, but I get really tired of hearing “Asians” lumped together all the time. “SE Asia” is a step in the right direction, but hardly specific.

And again, in Thailand it’s only the Northeasterners who eat bugs. You can find bug carts in Bangkok and elsewhere in the country outside of the Northeast, but what tourists don’t realize is the bug carts are set up near areas with high concentrations of migrant Northeasterners such as construction sites and red-light areas.

Just about every culture has an invertebrate or two or thirty that they will eat. Sometimes it’s considered “regional” “low-class” “peasant food” or inversely “haute cuisine”.

From my foragings on youtube, snacking on certain arthropods is relatively common in Spanish-speaking Latin America. It varies from the “peasant” through “authentic” spectrum depending on where you are and how much money you have to spend. And in Amazonia it’s just normal.

Just about anything you can legally put on a stick and fry can be openly bought in Beijing - a place where many other exotic foods are consumed as status symbols as well.

In parts of southern Europe, certain cheese is only considered truly refined after having passed through the digestive track of maggots, and is served with those maggots alive and jumping. And cheese, in general, is considered revolting in many Asian cultures.

In North America and much of Europe, if we are going to eat something without a backbone that wears an exoskeleton, it usually has to come from the water. Lobster, for example, is basically a big old bug that lives in the bay. At least in North America, through much of the 18th and 19th centuries, lobsters were considered food for the poor, and transformed into a luxury good through the process of elimination (this is true for many animals). Many are also satisfied if that exoskeleton has been reduced to a small internal vestige, as with the cephalopods.

I live in the middle of Boston, in a mix of university students, South Americans, and all sorts of south, southeast, and east Asians. At the Sunrise Hispanic-Asian Grocery store you can literally find yourself unpasturized goat cheese (El Salvador) next to your balut (Philippines). But for real selection, you want the giant Super 88 Hong Kong Market. If the dairy selection isn’t wide enough (and it’s not), go to the urban-upscale Star Market across the street.

[quote=“Colophon, post:4, topic:716006”]

Just in case anyone thinks that is genuine…


I have seen actual brains, live and not live, of several animals, mostly primates. I have seen many many more skulls and skull fragments, again mostly primates.

Skulls are not a single bone, but several fused together. The cranial fuse pattern of a primate would be extremely unlikely to fragment in the manner shown in the video unless it was from a single extreme impact. Skulls are also not that thin, because their insides are important.

Brains also have structure, structure that looks vaguely like cauliflower, but with specific bulges and indentations. And that is only for the cortex area, things get more solid looking and the structures are less differentiable to the unaided human eye. These sections were not present in the video. The brain is also surrounded by several layers of thin tissue, which was not visible in the video. Finally, brains are also not very solid when unpreserved, unlike cauliflower. You cannot pick up a chunk of fresh brain with a fork.

It is not real. It is 1980s quality special effects for people who have never studied neuroanatomy.

And when I was a kid I was afraid to watch these movies…