Cracking Open the History of Fortune Cookies

That crunchy confection whose unobtrusive vanilla flavor is always a welcome complement to a heavy, savory meal

Robert-Couse Baker via Flickr

Last Friday a friend and I decided to grab dinner at a Chinese restaurant down by the D.C. waterfront. We indulged in the hot and sour soup and plates of steak sauteed with scallions and red onion and dark chicken meat marinated in garlicky soy sauce and served with a medley of nuts. And when all that was left on the white stoneware serving plates was a stray cashew or two, the waiter kindly offered us a dessert menu. Tempted, though having had my fill, I was quite content to settle for the dessert that customarily comes with the check. The fortune cookie—that crunchy confection whose unobtrusive vanilla flavor is always a welcome complement to a heavy, savory meal. It's also the only time I appreciate my food talking back to me. My little strip of paper offered the chipper observation: "You are well liked and valued by those around you." Who am I to argue with what a cookie tells me?

Argument has, however, arisen when it comes to determining this cookie's actual national origin. It's a quintessential element of the Chinese food experience here in America, yet both Chinese and Japanese immigrant populations in this country have claimed the confection as theirs. The issue became so contentious that it fueled a 1983 court battle wherein the judge gave a split decision ruling that the modern fortune cookie was born in pre-World War I San Fransisco; however, he declined to decide which nationality had claim to the treats.

The fortune cookie and its murky history is a recurring element in Jennifer 8. Lee's The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, an in-depth exploration of Chinese food in the Western world wherein she traces the beginnings of Chinese dining hallmarks such as home delivery and General Tso's Chicken in addition to exploring darker subjects such as how the Chinese restaurant industry dovetails with the human trafficking industry. But divining whence fortune cookies came required a lot of detective work that ultimately brought her to Yasuko Nakamatchi, a Japanese researcher who was able to cleave through decades of folklore and hearsay-based creation stories.

Fortune cookies are most likely of Japanese origin. In the course of her detective work, Nakamatchi came upon a handful of family-owned bakeries near a Shinto shrine in Kyoto who continued the local tradition of making tsujiura senbei ("fortune crackers"). Flavored with sesame and miso, the cookies are larger and browner than their American cousins, and the little paper fortunes are found on the outside, held in the cookie's little "arms." The clincher was an 1878 Japanese block print of a man preparing senbei using the same hand-operated cookie grills still used in the Kyoto bakeries. (Of course, at least for the American market, the manufacturing process is automated.)

Dessert was never a strong point in Chinese cooking. "Traditional Chinese desserts, as any Chinese-American child will tell you, are pretty bad," Lee writes in her book. "There is a reason Chinese cuisine has a worldwide reputation for wontons, and not for pastries." So how did the Chinese inherit Japan's fortune cookies in the United States? During World War II, Chinese food spiked in popularity and, at least on the West Coast, dinners were commonly accompanied by fortune cookies; however, when Japanese Americans were forced into internment camps, their bakeries that produced the cookies were shuttered. Chinese entrepreneurs stepped in to fill the void and by the end of the war they were indelibly associated with fortune cookies, whose popularity had spread nationwide.

So, if you're ushering in the year of the rabbit tomorrow, there are more traditional, definitively Chinese foodstuffs you can include as a part of your celebration. Nevertheless, I think there's something to be said for the sheer fun of cracking into fortune cookies with a group of friends and each person reading aloud the random pearl of wisdom they received—perhaps adding a line of innuendo for a bit of innocent fun. However you choose to celebrate, here's wishing you all a very happy Chinese New Year!

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