How Fortune Cookies Came to Be
The history of the American tradition as Chinese New Year and Valentine’s Day approach.
Chinese New Year 2021 falls on Friday, February 12, just in time for Valentine's Day weekend. If you’re looking for a confection to honor both occasions, look no further than fortune cookies for concealed messages with longer declarations of love than you can put on a typical conversation heart.
A meal from a Chinese restaurant would hardly be complete without the ceremonial finish of the fortune cookie: the scented wafer that breaks easily to give way to its more exciting component — the paper fortune contained within. Ancient words of wisdom, a handful of lucky numbers, and even a word or two in Mandarin, all encased in a lightly sweet, crunchy treat. Who could ask for more from a free dessert?
While fortune cookies in their prophetic simplicity certainly seem like something that could have been around for several dynasties, in reality, they aren’t even a little bit ancient. (Necco’s Conversation Hearts are actually older by half a century.) Nor are they — brace yourself — actually Chinese in pedigree. You’d scarcely find a Chinese restaurant from America to Australia missing fortune cookies as part of the experience but in China, you'd have to seek your fortune outside of the dessert course.
So how did these enigmatic cookies originate? Several contemporary sources from The New York Times to the Smithsonian have pursued the parentage of the fortune cookie, with Chinese-American scholar and author of “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles” Jennifer 8. Lee weighing in as the preeminent source. While there has been mild controversy about who exactly gets the credit for the treat in its existing form, the birthplace is certain: California. And the DNA? Likely Japanese.
Fortune cookies as we know them are simply made with flour, sugar, vanilla, and butter or oil, lightly baked or griddled until just pliable and then folded into the signature shape. For any Culinary Arts graduates who still shudder(as I do) thinking about making Thomas Keller’s salmon cornets in Module 5 of the curriculum, fortune cookies come together in a similar way to the cone: wafers are cooked in small batches and must be folded and bent while still warm from the oven.
In flavor and appearance, they most closely resemble a cookie called tsujiura senbei that originated in Kyoto, Japan, in the 1800s. These cookies were wafer-like in texture and a little more savory than the modern fortune cookie, more like crackers, often flavored with sesame and miso. They also contained fortune cookies’ signature calling card: a paper fortune held in the bend of the wafer.
During a wave of Asian immigration to the United States' West Coast in the late 1800s and early 1900s, a Japanese immigrant named Makoto Hagiwara is believed to have been the first to serve the cookies at Golden Gate Park’s Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco in 1908. Competing claims eventually came from other culinary entrepreneurs in Los Angeles: David Jung of Hong Kong Noodle Company and Seiichi Keto of Fugetsu-do, but ultimately Hagiwara’s claim as the first has prevailed as the most likely, whether his cookie influenced the others or not.
The modern American fortune cookie seems to have made the cultural leap from Japan to China around World War II for various reasons. By then both Japanese and Chinese restaurants were serving them in San Francisco and Los Angeles — with the rising popularity, Japanese purveyors often sold them to Chinese restaurants. As many Japanese immigrants were interned during World War II, Chinese bakeries began carrying the torch of their production and were among the first to mechanize the fortune cookie-making process. With the establishment of mass production and therefore widespread distribution to Chinese restaurants across the U.S., the fortune cookie’s fortune as a Chinese artifact in the minds of Americans was sealed. Now the largest manufacturer of fortune cookies is Wonton Food, based in New York.
As for the convergence of Chinese cultural celebrations and romance, certainly, the fortune cookie has been widely used as a vessel for proposals at any time of year, but there are particular occasions throughout the Chinese calendar for celebrations of romance. Fifteen days after Lunar New Year is the Lantern Festival, when the lighting is undeniably flattering, and unity and togetherness are celebrated by eating tang yuan: glutinous rice balls studded with sweet fillings such as peanuts, red beans or sesame seeds. In contemporary Chinese culture, Western traditions such as flowers and chocolate have also been adopted as typical gifts for romantic occasions.
The most common Chinese celebration of love is the Qixi Festival, or Chinese Valentine’s Day, which usually takes place in the fall. The Qixi Festival — or the Double Seven Festival, as it falls on the seventh day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar — celebrates an ancient story of a god and goddess who were banished from the heavens for having the audacity to fall in love with each other. On Earth, they were exiled as a cowherd and a weaver girl, where they managed to meet and fall in love again. (Now that’s good fortune.)
Learn more about the origins of food traditions in career training programs at ICE.