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There is a common belief/urban legend that there are some Asian peoples that eat brains of monkeys while they are still alive.

A dish often attributed to China, monkey brains are also eaten in places like Africa, South American, and South East Asia. It's rumoured that the monkey's brains are eaten while the monkey is still alive, which is the reason why many find this inhumane and controversial.

I have searched online for sources confirming this belief without coming across anything substantial. Is there really such a somewhat common practice?

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    Nitpicking: How long is the poor monkey actually "alive" if the organ being eaten is vital? Does "eaten alive" really mean "eaten whole, straight out of its cranium" or merely "eaten rare soon after the kill"? (The distinction is clearly important for the inhumanity argument.) – Anko May 20 '14 at 13:43
  • You can live without quite a lot of your brain, unless blood loss would kill you. – Ryan Reich May 20 '14 at 15:30
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    I don't have anything to cite so I'm not putting this as an answer but some people here do eat monkey brains and the monkey is served alive. Traditionally the diner would cut open the cranium himself so at the point the meal starts the monkey is definitely alive. – slebetman May 23 '14 at 4:50
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    @slebetman could you let us in on where "here" is? – Jewels May 23 '14 at 9:31
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    Malaysia. Specifically in East Malaysia, on Borneo. I am on the mainland though. – slebetman May 23 '14 at 14:43
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The closest thing anyone has ever produced to proof that monkeys are eaten alive is this 1998 article in Apple Daily, a popular Hong Kong newspaper. It shows an unconscious monkey about to be decapitated, and then a photo of the brains, clearly from the same meal:

Monkey brains

However, there is a crucial thing missing here: the monkey was "alive" (all meat is alive before it is killed...) but it was knocked out and was never eaten alive; the patrons did not scoop the brains out of a screaming monkey, which is how the gruesome legend usually goes.

The translator of the article reports that he had never once heard of a town where monkey brains could actually be eaten from a living, breathing monkey. He had often heard of this as a second-hand rumor, and occasionally as something experienced in childhood, but there was never a specific village or town named where the practice existed. He therefore dubbed this a myth made up to scare urbanites. Locals will tell urbanites, "it's a very backwards place, they eat live monkey brains over there," and then gleefully repeat the macabre myth, but it's very rare for anyone to ever say they had some for themselves. (When I was in Japan, I was personally told that there was a live monkey brain restaurant in the back streets of Fukuoka -- invitation-only, of course. Someone had modified the common rumor to make it local.) The Apple Daily story even says that they had the story told to them with an apology that the practice no longer exists. In a part of the world with many unusual foods, such a rumor apparently can apply to anywhere remote enough and has entertainment value.

I agree with the translator that the specific question asked about "traditional cuisine" can be answered with a firm "no". Monkeys are sometimes available for purchase at the market in southwest China, Vietnam and Malaysia, and I suppose it's not out of the question that a monkey could be beaten into submission and eaten live, but live monkey brains have never been "on the menu" as local cuisine and no one has ever been able to point to a specific location where they can be eaten.

The major roadblock to such "traditional cuisine" comes up in Apple Daily's follow-up story in 2001. They returned to the monkey brain village and wrote that the practice was still ongoing. But they also reported that monkeys at the bazaar knew the fate that awaited them and did not take it sitting down. I believe this poses the biggest problem to eating live monkey brains: it will not be a pleasant experience if the monkey fails to cooperate.

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In the book "Who Needs a Road?: The Story of the Longest and Last Motor Journey Around the World by Harold Stephens and Albert Podell" the authors eats monkey brain in a restaurant in Hong Kong in 1966. They have the special table described above and the top of the skull is cut of with a cleaver.

In some situations you have no choice but to eat whatever is put in front of you, as when you’re someone’s guest in a land where refusal to partake is considered rude, and caused your host to lose face. Steve and I were such guests of several Hong Kong dignitaries who’d been helpful to us. They took us to a gourmet restaurant in the colony’s Wanchai district, where we were seated around a circular table having a grapefruit-sized hole in the center. Because of my strong convictions favoring conservation, I had much difficulty ingesting several of the courses, particularly a bird’s-nest soup and a jelly made of shark’s fins, but I had no way to decline without giving great offense. Then came the killer: Near the conclusion of the meal, the stony-faced waiter brought out a live monkey in a basket. He deftly slipped the unsuspecting simian under the table and brought his head up through the hole in the center. Before I could comprehend what was happening, the waiter, with a hard, practiced swing of his cleaver, hit the little guy with a sharp blow to the middle of the forehead that broke through his skull, and, still with the same sweeping motion, flipped back the top of the animal’s head to reveal its brain, gray and moist and pulsating inside. With my hosts eagerly demonstrating the proper technique for scooping out pieces of the still-living brain with a demitasse spoon, and exhorting us to eat while it was still warm, and assuring me that no creature feels any pain when you consume its brain, I reluctantly dipped in. That was not a dinner I’ll ever forget. Or want to repeat.

(Taken from https://www.mappingmegan.com/eat-monkey-brain-albert-podell-adventures-in-eating/)

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The question in the title differs from the question in the text.

The answer to the title question is "Yes": It is certainly part of traditional cuisine some places in the world, if perhaps exceedingly rare or luxurious.

Example: The man han quan xi (or the Manchu-Han Full Course), indulged in by Qing Emperors, consisted of such treats as: Camel's Hump, Bear's Paw, Monkey Brain, Gorilla Lip, Elephant Trunk, Leopard Foetus, Rhinoceros Tail, and Deer Sinew. These are merely the Eight Treasures from the Mountain. There are also several other sets of Eight Treasures that one must assemble before one can call it the Full Course.

These other treasures consist also of a long list of other very exotic things, most of which are no longer commonly eaten by most Chinese people. With the exceptions of Bird's Nest and Shark's Fin (which are totally bizarre things to eat for non-Chinese people, but which are still very common).

This 2004 article claims that it can still be found in Guangxi.

This other 2004 article, also by TVBS, reports that a monkey was adopted by the Taoyuan County Department of Agriculture, only after members of the public saw it with its head shaven and being offered "for sale" and bought it out of sympathy and then gave it to the Department.

The Taoyuan County Department of Agriculture confirmed for the first time that there are Taiwanese people eating monkey brains for nourishment ... The police suspect that there are criminal parties who are rearing monkeys for this purpose and so, besides monitoring these activities closely, the police also wish to remind the public, that gluttony may lead to one becoming an accomplice to the crime.

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Here is another bulletin board posting with a seemingly very detailed, though uncorroborated story about a live monkey brain being served in a Guangdong restaurant.

This baidu article describes the supposed procedure used traditionally (100+ years ago):

The monkey brain serving table must be specially made. In the centre is cut a hole, through which the monkey's head can emerge, tie up its limbs, and tightly secure it beneath the table, have only the monkey's head emerge, its head hair has already been shaven previously, when eating, the owner uses a hammer to crack the skull, then use a knife to pry open the skull, pour out the brain liquid, and the guests then each use a silver ladle to serve themselves, and eat all of it.

This 2012 English language article tells us that "China Cracks Down On Monkey Brain And Other Wild Animal Delicacies" (though it doesn't claim that it's live monkey brains that are being cracked down upon).

The answer to the question in the text ("Is there really such a somewhat common practice?") is probably "No": Nowhere can it be called "somewhat common". (It is however of course possible that I am neglecting some undiscovered tribes in the Amazon or what-not, or some far-flung Chinese village somewhere which likes to indulge in this traditional cuisine.)

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    Baidu is an unsourced wiki like Wikipedia. The idea that the monkey brains were eaten "live" is not something to be found in any pre-modern written document, but is a rumor that is passed around and posted up on wikis. – Avery Oct 8 '14 at 21:03

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