The Famous Fortune Cookies

From the last post, I talked about the history of egg rolls during a little Chinese takeout adventure. As always, accompanying Chinese food were the famous fortune cookies. Again, these fortune cookies came with my Chinese food from the Golden Gate Restaurant and we all know what fortune cookies look like: a golden crispy cookie shaped like a pinched-V with a little paper fortune inside. But where do these little guys come from?

Actually, nobody is 100% sure. There was even a court case battle in 1983 about the origin of these cookies. The judge of that case ruled that the modern fortune cookie was born in the pre-World War I San Francisco. But after reading several sources, there seems to be 3 main theories:

Message Passing

According to the Library of Congress, some think that fortune cookies were inspired by the way they used it to pass messages in the 14th century with Chinese rebels against Mongol invaders. A Taoist priest and his followers sent messages hidden inside of Chinese moon cakes to inform rebels about potential uprisings against invaders.

Japanese Bakeries

An article from the New York Times and the Smithsonian Magazine say that fortune cookies actually have Japanese roots. A Japanese researcher named Yasuko Nakamachi followed the paths and scrolls down to several family-owned bakeries in the Shinto shrines or the Hyotanyama Inari Shrine that made pastries that were shaped exactly like fortune cookies and had fortunes in them. They were called tsujiura senbei (“fortune crackers”), omikuji senbei (“written fortune crackers”), and suzu senbei (“bell crackers”).

DSC_0018 DSC_0024

The difference was that the cookies from these Japanese bakeries were made out of miso and sesame making them bigger and browner than the American version that are made from vanilla and butter, like in the recipe from Martha Stewart. Then, the fortunes we love and know are hidden inside the cookie while the two ends of the cookie pinch the Japanese versions’ fortunes. And while our fortunes tend to give advice or some kind of prophecy, the fortunes of the Japanese bakeries had only 23 different fortunes that tend to be more poetic or about Confucian phrases about life.

Makoto Hagiwara

He is a Japanese-American immigrant that ran the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco and was credited for inventing the fortune cookie. They used it as a small dessert and a part of the experience.

But, most of these didn’t even involve anything of the Chinese origin, besides the first theory. Although I couldn’t find any information specifically about how the fortunes actually travelled to America, it is assumed that they were brought over by Japanese Americans. Then during World War II, when the Japanese were forced to evacuate into the Internment camps, their fortune cookie bakeries were shut down. So, the Chinese entrepreneurs used this to their advantage and took over the void. Since then, it’s been a huge part of the Chinese-American culture.


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