A fortune cookie is a crisp cookie usually made from flour, sugar, vanilla, and sesame seed oil with a "fortune" wrapped inside. A "fortune" is a piece of paper with words of wisdom, an aphorism, or a vague prophecy. The message inside may also include a Chinese phrase with translation or a list of lucky numbers used by some as lottery numbers, some of which have become actual winning numbers.
Fortune cookies are often served as a dessert in Chinese restaurants in the United States and some other countries, but are absent in China. The exact origin of fortune cookies is unclear, though various immigrant groups in California claim to have popularized them in the early 20th century, basing their recipe on a traditional Japanese cracker. Fortune cookies have been summarized as being "introduced by the Japanese, popularized by the Chinese, but ultimately ... consumed by Americans."
Where does the fortune cookie come from? The easy answer is that the fortune cookie as we know it today - with its distinctive shape and a fortune wrapped inside – is not Chinese at all. Modern day fortune cookies first appeared in California in the early 1900’s. Tracking down who invented the cookie that no Chinese take-out or restaurant meal would be complete without is tougher. Most sources credit either Makoto Hagiwara or David Jung. Of the two, Hagiwara, seems to have the stronger claim.
Hagiwara, a Japanese immigrant who had served as official caretaker of the Japanese Tea Gardens since 1895, began serving the cookies at the Tea Garden sometime between 1907 and 1914. (His grandson, George Hagiwara believes the correct date is between 1907 – 1909). The cookies were based on Japanese senbei – grilled rice wafers. According to some sources; the cookies contained thank you notes instead of fortunes, and may have been Hagiwara’s way of thanking the public for getting him rehired after he was fired by a racist Mayor.
Meanwhile, Canton native David Jung had immigrated to Los Angeles. In 1916 he founded the Hong Kong Noodle Company. He claimed to have invented the fortune cookie around 1918, handing out baked cookies filled with inspiring passages of scripture to unemployed men. However, even the Los Angeles Almanac website admits that there is no surviving documentation showing how he came up with the idea.
In 1983, the San Francisco Court of Historical Review held a mock trial to settle the issue for once and for all. (The Court has no legal authority; other weighty culinary issues they have settled include whether or not chicken soup deserves its reputation as "Jewish Penicillin"). During the trial someone provided the judge with a fortune cookie containing the message: "S.F. Judge who rules for L.A. not very smart cookie." In fairness to Daniel M. Hanlon, the real-life federal judge who presided over the case, his decision rested on weightier pieces of evidence, including a set of grills. Still, it came as no surprise when the Court sided with Hagiwara and ruled that San Francisco is the birthplace of the fortune cookie.
Not surprisingly, Angelenos ignored the ruling: many sources continue to credit Jung with inventing fortune cookies. But for now, Los Angeles (County) will have to be satisfied with being the official birthplace of the Cobb Salad and the Shirley Temple mocktail.
Or maybe not. Yet another possibility is that the fortune cookie was invented by a Japanese American living in Los Angeles. That is the claim of the proprietors of Fugetsu-do confectionary, a family owned and operated bakery in the Little Tokyo district of downtown Los Angeles. According to the Kito family, the idea for the fortune cookie originated with their grandfather, Seiichi Kito, who founded Fugetsu-do in 1903. While the confectionary quickly became famous for its mochi – sweet round rice cakes accompanied with everything from sweet red bean paste to peanut butter – at some point Kito began making fortune cookies and selling them to Chinese restaurants. According to sources his inspiration was omi-kuji – fortunes written on slips of paper found in Japanese Buddhist temples. (Today, you’ll find omikuji-senbei - “fortune crackers” - sold in bakeries in Japan). Their website alludes to a 1927 letter crediting a Japanese American living in Los Angeles with inventing the fortune cookie. Visitors to the shop can still see the original fortune cookie molds on display in the front store window “collecting dust and memories.”
But where does the inspiration for modern-day fortune cookies come from? Despite the fact that fortune cookies have proved about as popular in China as a plate of cooked spinach is to the average five-year old, their origins may be Chinese after all. Every fall (the 15th day of the eighth month in the Chinese calendar, to be exact) the Chinese celebrate the mid-Autumn Moon Festival. Children hear the legend of how, in the 14th century, the Chinese threw off their Mongol oppressors by hiding messages in Mooncakes (which the Mongols did not like to eat). On the night of the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, the rebels attacked and overthrew the government, leading to the establishment of the Ming dynasty.
Still, a legend is only a legend, no matter how charming. And today's Mooncakes don’t contain messages. But some believe that during the American railway boom of the 1850’s, Chinese railway workers came up with their own substitute for the mooncakes they were unable to buy: homemade biscuits with good luck messages inside.
Like the mooncake legend, no proof for this story exists. And, thanks to the exhaustive efforts of Japanese researcher Yasuko Nakamachi, we now know that at about the same time the Chinese railway workers were laying down track, “tsujiura senbei” (rice cakes containing paper fortunes) were being made at the Hyotanyama Inari shrine outside Kyoto in Japan. Nakamachi uncovered an illustration in an 1878 book showing a man grilling tsujiura senbei outside the shrine. (source: Jennifer 8 Lee, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles).
So, where do fortune cookies come from? At this point, the weight of historical evidence seems to agree with a man interviewed for the movie “The Killing of a Chinese Cookie” who states: “The Japanese invented the fortune cookie, the Chinese advertised it, and the Americans tasted it.” Still, as author Jennifer 8. Lee says, it’s “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside a cookie.”
Like chop suey, fortune cookies are an American invention. They originated in California, but who the actual inventor was, and which city in California is the true home of the fortune cookie, has continued to be a matter of debate. Unequivocally not Chinese, the fortune cookie may in fact not even be Chinese American.
Chinese or Japanese, Angelino or San Franciscan?
One history of the fortune cookie claims that David Jung, a Chinese immigrant living in Los Angeles and founder of the Hong Kong Noodle Company, invented the cookie in 1918. Concerned about the poor he saw wandering near his shop, he created the cookie and passed them out free on the streets. Each cookie contained a strip of paper with an inspirational Bible scripture on it, written for Jung by a Presbyterian minister.
Another history claims that the fortune cookie was invented in San Francisco by a Japanese immigrant named Makoto Hagiwara. Hagiwara was a gardener who designed the famous Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park. An anti-Japanese mayor fired him from his job around the turn of the century, but later a new mayor reinstated him. Grateful to those who had stood by him during his period of hardship, Hagiwara created a cookie in 1914 that included a thank you note inside. He passed them out at the Japanese Tea Garden, and began serving them there regularly. In 1915, they were displayed at the Panama-Pacific Exhibition, San Francisco's world fair.
In 1983, San Francisco's pseudo-legal Court of Historical Review held a mock trial to determine the origins of the fortune cookie. (In the past, the Court had ruled on such pressing topics as the veracity of Mark Twain's quote, "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco" and the origins of the Martini. *) To no one's surprise, the judge (a real-life federal judge from San Francisco) ruled in favor of San Francisco. Included among the evidence was a fortune cookie whose message read: "S.F. Judge who rules for L.A. Not Very Smart Cookie." Equally unsurprising, Los Angeles has denounced the ruling.
From Confucius to Smiley Faces
Fortune cookies became common in Chinese restaurants after World War II. Desserts were not traditionally part of Chinese cuisine, and the cookies thus offered Americans something familiar with an exotic flair.
Although there have been a few cases reported of individuals actually liking the texture and flavor of fortune cookies, most consider the fortune to be the essence of the cookie. Early fortunes featured Biblical sayings, or aphorisms from Confucius, Aesop, or Ben Franklin. Later, fortunes included recommended lottery numbers, smiley faces, jokes, and sage, if hackneyed, advice. Politicians have used them in campaigns, and fortunes have been customized for weddings and birthday parties. Today messages are variously cryptic, nonsensical, feel-good, hectoring, bland, or mystifying.
From Chopsticks to High Tech
Fortune cookies were originally made by hand using chopsticks. In 1964, Edward Louie of San Francisco's Lotus Fortune Cookie Company, automated the process by creating a machine that folds the dough and slips in the fortune. Today, the world's largest fortune cookie manufacturer, Wonton Food Inc. of Long Island CIty, Queens ships out 60 million cookies a month.