When you step into a Chinese restaurant anywhere in the Western world, you will likely see a fortune cookie. That’s because every year there are over three billion fortune cookies produced. Most of them in the United States. But, what is a fortune cookie, and where does it come from?
Food, like a person, is complex in composition. In order to understand what itis. We need to understand its origins, it’s ingredients and the story behind it. Only then can we truly appreciate it and accept it as part of our lives. A fortune cookie has complex origins which we need to explore in-depth. Let us ease into it by looking at the ingredients first.
What Are The Ingredients of Fortune Cookies?
A fortune cookie is a sweet, crunchy dessert which usually has a hazy prophecy on a piece of paper inside. The ingredients of a fortune cookie are typically flour, vanilla extract, sesame seed oil and sugar. The final ingredient is the “fortune” which is the piece of paper containing wise words. Whilst there are no disputes about the sweet tooth ingredients of a fortune cookie. We do struggle to find where it actually originated from.
Where Do Fortune Cookies Come From?
Our relationship with food is an intimate one. Eating is a time to gather with family and friends and to relax. Often, we cook meals which are personal to our heritage and whose recipes have been passed down overtime. This is where the fortune cookie becomes interesting. Nobody really knows for certain where it originated. One thing is for sure. Whilst it is served in Chinese restaurants throughout the Western world. It did not come from China.
The Modern-Day Origins
Makoto Hagiwara and David Jung
The cookie which is meant to give us our fortunes is said to have first surfaced in California back in the early 1900s. Some, credit David Jung with inventing the fortune cookie in 1918. Jung was a Chinese immigrant who settled in Los Angeles and started the Hong Kong Noodle Company in 1916. The theory about Jung is believed to be one of the reasons people associate fortune cookies with Chinese cuisine.
Makoto Hagiwara, on the other hand, was a Japanese immigrant residing in San Francisco. He journeyed to the United States years before David Jung. In 1895, Hagiwara took up the role of official caretaker of the Japanese tea gardens in San Francisco. Between the years of 1907 and 1909 he began serving a Japanese senbei toasted wafer cookie. The cookie came with thank you notes written inside to his patrons.
A mock trial was held by the San Francisco Court of Historical Review in 1983, to put this issue to bed. Makoto Hagiwara came out on top. The evidence of a set of grills he used was sufficient for the judge to rule in his favour. Although the quest to find the true origins of the fortune cookie does not stop here.
As if the poor fortune cookie wasn’t confused enough. Somebody else threw their hat into the ring, claiming they were the inventor. This was none other than Seiichi Kito. He was another immigrant of Japanese descent. Along with his family, they settled in Los Angeles in the early 1900s. In 1903 he opened Fugetsu-do, a confectionery selling delectable Japanese treats. Not long after opening for business, Kito began selling fortune cookies to Chinese restaurants. Kito was inspired by O-mikuji. A practice of placing arbitrary fortunes written on pieces of paper around a Shinto temple or Buddhist shrine, in Japan.
Whilst it can be confirmed that Fugetsu-do opened its doors in 1903, there is no evidence as to the exact time Kiito began selling his fortune cookies. This is why Makoto Hagiwara is mainly credited for inventing the modern fortune cookie.
Now that we know that the modern day fortune cookie has its origins in Japan, let us further explore why it came to be. Yasuko Nakamachi is a history and folklore graduate from Kanagawa University. She spent time at her alma mater searching for the origins of the fortune cookie. She is confident that the treat has its origins in Japan.
One of the strongest pieces of evidence to support her claim is a 19th-century book of illustrations. The book is titled “Moshiogusa Kinsei Kidan” and was published in 1878. A character in the book is depicted in a senbei store. Senbei, when translated into English, means cracker. According to a New York Times article in 2008, this character is shown to be grilling wafers in black irons over burning coals. Much like the way it is done in Japan today.
Further evidence to support Nakamachi’s claim, was discovered in a fiction novel by Tamenaga Shunsui. In the book he writes about one woman calming two others down by giving them a tsujiura senbei, with a fortune inside. The translation of tsujiura senbei means fortune crackers. This finding extends support for the claim that a fortune cookie did not originate in the United States of America. From the evidence, it suggests that the idea was in fact bought over by Japanese immigrants.
If the cookie did in fact originate in Japan then why does it appear in Chinese restaurants? And why are most of the world’s supplies produced in the United States?
The Fortune Cookie Boom
Before and during the second world war, fortune cookies were largely found in Chinese restaurants in San Francisco. It was likely that they were buying it from one of the Japanese bakeries. Some Chinese restaurants during this time were actually owned by Japanese immigrants. This could explain the appearance of a Japanese creation posing as Chinese food.
Troops who were stationed on the Pacific coast began to love fortune cookies. When they returned home they wondered why the Chinese restaurants in their towns were not serving these cookies. Towards the back end of the 1950s over 250 million fortune cookies were being produced every year.
There is no exact explanation as to how fortune cookies came to be associated with Chinese restaurants. But Nakamachi believes that the makeup of world war two holds the answer. Many Japanese residents were sent to internment camps during the war. This resulted in Chinese-owned manufacturers taking over fortune cookie production.
Now if you have ever indulged in a fortune cookie. There is a great chance that it came from Wonton Foods. They manufacture over 4.5 million fortune cookies every single day from their Brooklyn, New York Headquarters. Vice President of Sales at Wonton Food, Derrick Wong, says that though the Japanese invented the fortune cookie. It was the Chinese who truly extracted its potential. To Wong, the fortune cookie is symbolic of Chinese-American culture. It is a practice only carried out in the United States and other Western nations. The fortune cookie culture does not exist in China.
An excellent example of the feelings the East holds towards fortune cookies happened in 1992. Wonton Food attempted to expand their business into China. They quickly canned the idea as fortune cookies were viewed as “too American.” Still Wonton Food soldiers on. The fortune cookie may not be popular in China. That’s because the idea originated in Japan. But, Chinese Americans have created a lasting demand for these sugary treats, at restaurants across the nation.
The Baking Process
Now that we have an understanding of where fortune cookies originated, let us learn how to make them. We take the ingredients we mentioned earlier and make our cookie dough.
Once your dough is silky smooth, lay them out on a tray, and bake them in flat circles. Take the baked dough out of the oven. Slip your fortune in the middle, and fold the dough together whilst it is still soft. As a result, you should now have the half-moon shape of a fortune cookie with a fortune inside of it. Wait for your cookie to cool, and harden giving it a delicious crunch. To ensure it keeps its shape you should use a muffin tin during the cooling process
Up until 1964. Confectioners would repeat the laborious task of handcrafting the fortune cookies. Placing the fortune in the middle and finally folding the dough using chopsticks. This was time consuming and required much focus. That was until the owner of the Lotus Fortune Cookie Company, Edward Louie automated the process. He developed a machine which could place the fortune in the middle and fold the cookie. This immediately increased his daily capacity to 90,000 cookies.
Fortune cookies may be loved for the corny prophecies that the dessert promises you, but it is far more than that. Yes,this is a cookie that is sweet, crunchy and delicious. But,it is also a representation of what we can do when we work together. How they came to be sold by Chinese restaurants still remains a mystery. But, it took three nations of people to make this tasty treat popular.
The question that we asked was, what is a fortune cookie? As you have learnt it is more than just a delectable sugar dessert sold in Chinese restaurants in the western world. A fortune cookie is hard on the outside and hollow inside. It is a complex character who is still trying to find its identity in the world.