The Unlikely History of Fortune Cookies

published Jan 24, 2017
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It’s hard to imagine a meal at a Chinese restaurant without fortune cookies. Even though most people crack them open, yank out the fortune, and toss the cookie part back onto the table with nary a nibble, Chinese food still would not be the same without them.

I remember early on in my career, when I used to write a column about food factories in New York City, I visited Wonton Food Inc. in Long Island City, Queens, makers of Golden Bowl brand fortune cookies. I knew that they were a producer of fortune cookies, but I didn’t realize that they were the producer.

It turns out that Wonton Food is still the world’s largest manufacturer of fortune cookies. I remember being astounded by the stacks upon stacks of boxes filled with cookies, in which the fates of their future owners were sealed. Something about the randomness of the distribution of all of those messages seemed cosmic and existential. I also remember thinking, that’s a lot of cookies!

Wonton Food Corp. sells tens of millions of cookies each year all over the world, with one notable exception: When they tried to sell their fortune cookies in China in the ’90s, they failed. That’s because, according to Wonton Food Corp’s Richard Leung, “people in China never even heard of fortune cookies.”

Where do they come from?

That’s right — fortune cookies are not Chinese. In the book Fortune Cookie Chronicles, former New York Times journalist Jennifer 8. Lee writes an exhaustive account of her quest to pin down the true origins of the beloved fortune cookie. The soothsaying sweet has traveled a somewhat convoluted path, but she discovered that the novelty food’s origins are in … Japan.

Lee located a like-minded scholar, Yasuko Nakamachi, who had traced the predecessors of Chinese-American fortune cookies to a few bakeries outside of Kyoto, which make a type of senbei (the Japanese word for “cracker”) that look like darker, bigger fortune cookies and contain messages, too.

Those senbei have been around since at least the late 19th century and are still sold today, forged by hand using little irons. The Japanese version, which gets flavored with white miso and sesame, is on the savory side, and the message is tucked in the crease of the cookie, rather than inside of it, to prevent people from accidentally swallowing their fortunes.

How’d they get to America?

How did we get from artisan bakeries outside of Kyoto to seemingly every Chinese restaurant in the United States? There are records of Japanese bakeries in San Francisco and Los Angeles making the cookies in the early 1900s.

Some Chinese restaurateurs, who didn’t have much of a dessert menu, took a shine to them as an entertaining solution and sourced them for their restaurants. According to Lee, what started out as a regional specialty likely spread to the rest of the country when WWII veterans returning from service in the Pacific experienced fortune cookies when they touched down in California, then requested them at their local Chinese restaurants once they were back home.

How did the war change the cookie?

Amazingly, a few of the bakeries that produced some of those first American fortune cookies are still in business. Benkyodo Company, located in San Francisco’s Japantown, turns 111 this year. The confectionary was commissioned to make fortune-filled senbei, as well as other traditional snacks and sweets, for the tea house at the Japanese Tea Garden in the early 1900s. The garden, located in Golden Gate Park, was designed by Makoto Hagiwara for the 1894 World’s Fair. When the fair ended, the garden remained and Hagiwara lived there with his family and maintained the grounds, which included a tea house. They welcomed visitors with some of the first fortune cookies ever documented in this country.

It all came to an abrupt halt when Hagiwara and his family were interned in a camp in Arizona in 1942 following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The tea house was demolished. The owner of Benkyodo was also interned, and was forced to close his business temporarily.

There are similar stories about Umeya Bakery, which was one of the first manufacturers of machine-made fortune cookies, as well as the 114-year-old Fugetsu-Do, another early fortune cookie baker in Los Angeles. According to Nakamichi, when the Japanese bakers who had been supplying Chinese restaurants were interned, it was Chinese manufacturers who picked up the fortune cookie slack.

According to the New York Times, the conclusion made by the descendants of those early bakers and by the folks at Wonton Food Corp. is that, while Japanese-Americans are responsible for introducing the cookie to this country, it’s Chinese-Americans who transformed them into a ubiquitous cultural icon.