Robert McNeill: “What’s the difference?”
Cookie Monster: “Eat begin with an E and take . . . begin with a T.” —Sesame Street, Special (1988)
In A Nutshell
No Chinese meal would be complete without elegantly folded, fortune-stuffed cookies for dessert. The only problem is, they’re not Chinese. They originated in Japan and are mentioned in fiction and art as early as 1878. Just how they became associated with Chinese restaurants is a bit hazy, but researchers believe it has something to do the popularity of Chinese restaurants skyrocketing after many Japanese restaurants were closed during World War II.
The Whole Bushel
Ask any American what the key components to an authentic Chinese meal is and they’re almost guaranteed to include fortune cookies in the list. There’s always a handful thrown into take-out bags, and there are always some left on the table at a Chinese buffet. The only problem is, this absolutely quintessential Chinese food is absolutely not Chinese at all.
In fact, they’re not even served in China. There, they’re known as an American thing.
The oldest references to the creation of fortune cookies as we know them today comes from a handful of family-run bakeries outside of Kyoto. There, they’re called suzu senbei (“bell crackers”), tsujiura senbei (“fortune crackers”), or omikuji senei (“written fortune crackers”). They look a little different than the ones that Americans are accustomed to seeing, made with a darker batter that usually contains sesame, and the cookies are slightly larger. Instead of being wrapped inside the cookie, the fortune is usually pinched between the cookie’s two arms. The resemblance, though, is undeniable.
These larger, darker version of the fortune cookie have been made by small Japanese bakeries decades before they were ever known in America—or China. So far, some of the earliest known mentions of them are in literature and art dating back to 1878, while the earliest mentions of fortune cookies in the United States are from 1907–1914. Other mentions of the fortune cookie are found in undated works by a Japanese author who lived from 1790–1843.
And while they might have been invented there, fortune cookies aren’t even that popular in Japan. When university graduate student Yasuko Nakamachi published her findings on the source of the fortune cookie, it didn’t even get much press.
So how did they become synonymous with Chinese cuisine in America?
Fortune cookies gained popularity during World War II, where they first started popping up in California restaurants—not surprising, given the number of Japanese immigrants who settled in the state. Before the war, the path of the fortune cookie is a little less straightforward. One of the major contenders for bringing the sweet treat to America is Makoto Hagiwara, who served them with tea at the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco.
It’s thought that the cookies became known as a staple in Chinese food because of the number of Chinese restaurants that opened in the wake of Japanese restaurants that were forced to close during World War II. When Japanese immigrants were forced into internment camps, Chinese restaurants picked up on the dessert cookie. And when soldiers started passing through California on their return from the Pacific front, they were introduced to the cookie and helped spread it to the rest of the country.
The debate of who invented the fortune cookie in its present American state was so hotly contested that there was even a legal battle of it. In 1983, descendents of Hagiwara and of David Jung went to court to see who had the strongest claim to the cookie. David Jung, once owner of Los Angeles’s Hong Kong Noodle Company, claimed to have invented the cookie when he inserted Bible verses in the hard pastry and handed the cookies out to the city’s homeless as inspiration.
Hagiwara won, giving the Japanese contender the credit for bringing the iconic fortune cookie to America.