Did You Know Fortune Cookies Aren’t a Chinese Tradition?

One of the best parts of ordering Chinese food is the satisfaction of cracking open a fortune cookie at the end of your meal. Even though you may not be anticipating savoring the flavors of the cookie itself, it doesn’t matter. Everyone knows that the fortune is why you crack these crescent shaped cookies open.

From America to India, and many places in between, billions of cookies are shipped to Chinese restaurants where they patiently wait to reveal their fortune to a hungry diner.

However, the one place you won’t find these desserts is China because fortune cookies are in many ways an American invention.

Where Do Fortune Cookies Come From?

The history of these quintessential cookies is not an easy one. In fact, it is one that Japanese researcher, Yasuko Nakamachi, has spent years mapping out. After coming across these golden sweets in America in the 1980s, she returned to Japan and never saw them again until the 1990s when she stumbled across a familiar shape in a Kyoto. Suddenly, she realized that there might be a different story to the cookie than the one we normally hear.  

Indeed, she was right. It turns out that fortune cookies are actually Japanese.

In Japan, however, these cookies are known as senbei (the Japanese word for “cracker”). They are bigger and darker than fortune cookies and their messages are twisted around the cookies’ horns rather than stuffed inside. They are also made out of miso and sesame rather than vanilla and butter. 

The Japanese version of these cookies are also made by hand and sold around Kyoto, which has inhibited them from becoming as popular as their American counterparts. In contrast, American factories like Wonton Corp. produce tens of millions of cookies each year for worldwide consumption.

Fortune Cookies Come to America

Fortune.

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The question remains, how did these cookies become synonymous with Chinese food in America? The answer to this lies in World War II. In her book,  Fortune Cookie Chronicles, former New York Times journalist Jennifer 8. Lee chronicles the transformation this treat from a specialty dessert in California to a novel, worldwide, mass-produced dessert.

One of the bakeries that was originally producing these treats was the Benkyodo Company. For 111 years, this confectionary has baked fortune-filled senbei. It got its start by providing traditional pastries to the tea house in the San Francisco Japanese Tea Garden.

The garden, located in Golden Gate Park, was designed by Makoto Hagiwara for the 1894 World’s Fair. For years he and his family lived and worked in the garden and tea house. However, in 1942, this family business was unexpectedly halted by the family’s internment following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. 

There are similar accounts of other Japanese bakeries like Umeya Bakery, Benkyodo Company, and Fugetsu-Do who were forced to close their doors following government-mandated internment. However, thanks to the Chinese, their businesses didn’t die.

Lee postulates that the Chinese reinvented the fortune cookie by inventively marketing them to American soldiers returning from World War II. It was these soldiers who then popularized the sweet nationwide.

She and the descendants of these bakers concluded that although the Japanese invented this cookie, it is the Chinese who baked it into the American-Chinese cultural identity.

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