The popular companion to Chinese take out has a surprising history that began far from its signature homeland. For many lovers of Chinese take out food around the world, the fortune cookie has been a staple in the meals of hungry people for years. Often wrapped in plastic and containing a riddle attempting to predict the consumer’s future, these cookies have been a delight in the world of Chinese food.
Where Did the Fortune Cookie Come From?
According to an article in The New York Times called “Solving a Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery Inside a Cookie,” the cookie’s origins can be traced back to Japan. The evidence, uncovered by researcher Yasuko Nakamachi, lies in a picture in a book dated to the 19th century. The illustration depicts a man, probably an apprentice, grilling wafers in the way that it is believed original fortune cookies were made. Signs in the background and conpleted cookies next to the apprentice indicate that he is making fortune cookies. Researchers have traced the location of these cookies back to the Hyotanyama Inari shrine outside of present-day Kyoto, Japan.
However, some believe that fortune cookies predate Nakamachi’s research. According to the Library of Congress, some researchers believe that the cookies date back to 14th century China and were inspired by Chinese citizens rebelling against Mongol invaders. A Taoist priest used Chinese moon cakes, pasteries stuffed with a paste made from lotus seeds, to communicate with rebels about potential uprisings by stuffing messages inside the cakes.
How the cookie made the jump from Japan to America and into Chinese cusine is still somewhat of a mystery. It is believed that fortune cookies first appeared in the United States in 1914, made by Makoto Hagiwara, a Japanese man in San Francisco. He owned the business that is now known as the Golden Gate Park Japanese Tea Garden and served the cookies with tea.
However, there is another belief that the cookies did not make their first American appearance until 1918, when the Chinese-American man David (Tsung) Jung, who also owned the Hong Kong Noodle Company in Los Angeles, began serving cookies stuffed with biblical passages to his customers.
Fortune Cookies in the United States
After fortune cookies made their first appearances in the United States, the cookie remained a regional favorite until soldiers began returning from World War II and the fight in the Pacific Theater. The New York Times explains that, when these soldiers returned home, they would go to their local Chinese restaurants and inquire as to why they did not serve the same cookies that the shops in San Francisco did. Restaurants picked up on the treats quickly, and by the 1950s over 250 million fortune cookies were being produced each year by individual restaurants or by small bakeries.
By the 1960s, the reputation of the fortune cookie had changed drastically. The treat had become so popular that two presidential candidates, Adlai Stevenson and Stewart Symington, had used them in their political races.
The Library of Congress also contributes another change to the production of the fortune cookie. In 1974, Edward Louie, the owner of the Lotus Fortune Cookie Company in San Francisco, invented a machine that would manually fold the cookie and insert the slip of paper with the fortune written on it. By 1980, the first fully automated fortune cookie machine, the Fortune III, had been invented by a man named Yong Lee.
Fortune Cookies Today
Today, The New York Times says that approximately 3 billion fortune cookies are made a year, with the vast majority of them made in the United States. Many are made by automated machines that bake, fold, finish, and package fortune cookies at the rate of 8,000 cookies per hour. Fortune cookies have also been linked to winning lottery numbers and learning simple words in Chinese. The cookies have spread to countries such as Britain, Mexico, Italy, and India, but are still absent in China to the surprise of tourists.
Fortune cookies are a simple treat found in Chinese restaurants across the United States. The simple wafer and its complex history make the treat all the more satisfying with a meal or alone.