Fortune Cookies: Where Did They Come From?

Where did fortune cookies come from? How did they become so ubiquitous?

Believe it or not! The delicious fortune cookies that come with your Chinese take-out had not originated in China. It is customary in several restaurants to offer a small treat with their check, like a hard candy or mints. But numerous Chinese restaurants offer something little different: a Pac-Man shaped, vanilla-flavored cookie with a finger-sized slip of paper printed with a pithy fortune or aphorism. While many people associate these fortune cookies with the Chinese culture, they are more readily traceable to 19th-century Japan and 20th-century America. Continue reading to trace the interesting journey of fortune cookies.

Who invented fortune cookies?

Some bakeries outside the Japanese city of Kyoto produce what look like bigger darker-colored fortune cookies with messages inside their creases. These senbei, also known as “crackers” originated in the 19th century and are still produced in Japan.

From Kyoto to California

During the 1870s, some confectionary shops near Kyoto carried a cracker with the same folded shape and a fortune tucked into the bend, instead of its hollow inside. The cracker popularly came to be known as the “tsujiurasenbei,” or “fortune cracker”. The fortune cookie likely arrived in the United States along with Japanese immigrants who reached California and Hawaii between the 1880s and early 1900s after the Chinese Exclusion Act was implemented, causing the expulsion of Chinese laborers and the consequent rising demand for cheap labor. This is when Japanese bakers set up shop in places like San Francisco ad Los Angeles, making miso and sesame-flavored “fortune cookie-ish” crackers, among other treats.

Rising popularity

The popularity of the fortune cookies massively took off following World War II when veterans returned to the west coast after the conflict and asked for the treat when they visited their favorite Chinese diners and eateries.

Shift in production

As per Yasuko Nakamachi, a researcher, the production of the cookie was likely taken over by Chinese-owned manufacturers during the war when Japanese bakeries shut down and numerous owners were sent to Japanese-American internment camps.

Fortune cookie controversy

As fortune cookies became a staple in Chinese eateries, they also became fodder for ethnic stereotyping. Despite having Japanese roots and growing into a uniquely American business success story, the cookies became easy shorthand for all things Chinese. Using fortune cookies and takeout boxes as shorthands for Chinese culture is misleading, given that they’re distinctly American inventions.

Ever wondered how they get the messages into the tiny treats?

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