Every year three billion fortune cookies are made. The largest, according to Guinness World Records, weighed over three pounds. The average sits in the palm of your hand. Whether dining at a fancy restaurant or munching from white-and-red takeout cartons, fortune cookies are the beloved “dessert” after a Chinese dinner.
Brace yourself. While Chinese fortune cookies have many different stories, one fact remains uncontested.
Chinese fortune cookies are Japanese.
Riddles, April fools’ jokes, and fake news aside, people who live in China don’t even eat fortune cookies. Years ago, the largest producer of fortune cookies, Wonton Foods, tried to introduce the cookies in China. Diners kept eating the fortunes. Eventually, Wonton Foods gave up.
It began centuries ago in Kyoto, Japan. Their fortune cookie was larger than today and savory – made from sesame and miso. These days fortune cookies are smaller and sweet, flavored with vanilla and butter.
The Japanese fortune was wedged into the bend of the cookie – not inside. You can still find these dark-colored cookies in certain areas of Japan. Jennifer Lee reported in The New York Times that “small families [made] fortune cookie-shaped crackers by hand.” Lee found numerous references including an “1878 etching of a man making them in a bakery.”
Makoto Hagiwara introduced the fortune cookie in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park Japanese Tea Garden. It was the early 1900s and the cookies were made at Benkyodo. a local Japanese Bakery.
This happened long before Chinese immigrant, David Jung, founder of the Hong Kong Noodle Company, claimed he invented the fortune cookie in 1918. Jung gave out his cookies for free. The fortunes were biblical scriptures written by a local Presbyterian minister.
There were other claims.
One story argued fortune cookies date back to the early 1900s when San Francisco’s Chinatown was transformed from a ghetto into a tourist attraction. Another claims the cookies arrived with the California gold rush, brought by Chinese railroad workers. They revived an old tradition from the Mongol invasion in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Rebels hid messages in the cookies and passed them along.
What do you believe?
In 1983 the debate between David Jung (Hong Kong Noodle, Los Angeles) and Makoto Hagiwara (Japanese Tea Garden, San Francisco) was put to the test. Real-life Judge Daniel Hanlon presided in the pseudo-legal Court of Historical Review. He listened to the arguments and decided for Hagiwara.
Included in the evidence was a fortune cookie.
Los Angeles rejected the ruling.
Originally, fortune cookies in the states were made by Japanese-Americans. Soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, President Roosevelt issued a horrific executive order that sent over 120,000 Japanese-Americans into internment camps. They left their homes, communities, and businesses.
Fortune cookie production was left to Chinese-Americans. The word got out and the cookies became a staple in Chinese cuisine. The process was automated and they came to be known as Chinese Fortune Cookies.
Today business is booming – the global market is valued at $30.62 billion.
There are custom cookies, dirty, sassy, love, and Fortunes Against Humanity cookies. One company, Fancy Fortune Cookies, makes everything from chocolate dipped, crazy flavors, and holiday giant versions. Fortune cookies have gone beyond restaurants into business marketing and political campaigns. There are non-edibles like lockets, dolls, totes, plush toys, and tees.
In 2022 one North Carolina man used the numbers in his fortune cookie to play the Powerball Lottery. Now he’s four million dollars richer.
There’s a new job on the books: fortune cookie writer. According to Digital Solutions, their guide, How to Become a Fortune Cookie Writer, advises “your messages must impact wisdom to the reader.”
I don’t play the lottery or look for a job as a fortune cookie writer. I do wonder, however, if AI (artificial intelligence) might change the business.