For reasons I am at a loss to explain, I never tasted Chinese food until I went to college. Around the middle of my freshman year, I decided to make myself a “to do” list of experiences I’d always wanted to have. One of those things was trying Chinese food. Not long afterward, my roommate decided to take my cultural enlightenment into his own hands. “We’re going to Chinatown for supper tonight,” he said. Not only would he not take no for an answer, he even told me it was going to be a double date and who I was to ask out. I dutifully phoned the woman in question and off we all went, driving about an hour from the campus into the heart of Manhattan. That evening I had my first egg roll, my first wonton soup, and my first lo mein; I even managed to get the hang of chopsticks pretty readily. And needless to say, the meal ended with the obligatory fortune cookies, another novelty I’d never seen before. I’ve been a fan of Chinese cooking (and fortune cookies) ever since.
My adopted hometown of San Francisco also has a large and vibrant Chinatown, and I was delighted to learn that fortune cookies were in fact invented here. When we got married, Morgen and I decided to have a San Francisco-themed wedding. In addition to the San Francisco-shaped wedding cake (really), we got a bunch of those cardboard Chinese take-out containers, filled them with treats, and distributed them to all of our guests. Among the goodies was a custom-made fortune cookie with a special message thanking guests for attending.
You Will Have a Satisfying Dessert
I have always liked the idea of fortune cookies. As confections go, a fortune cookie is about the lightest dessert I can imagine, which is usually just what I’d hope for after a Chinese meal. I can’t recall ever having a fortune from a cookie come true, but there have been fortunes that gave me food for thought (so to speak), and even a patently goofy saying seems like a delightfully quaint way to end dinner. But even though I knew fortune cookies were invented in California, it never really sank in until recently that this made them an American idea that probably would be (and indeed is) considered strange in China. It turns out that the story is even weirder than that—fortune cookies are not merely an American invention, they’re a Japanese invention that was adapted for Americans and then co-opted by Chinese restaurant owners. That the fortune cookie, given its mongrel roots, has become so iconic of Chinese restaurants in America is truly amazing.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. There are several competing histories of the fortune cookie, none of which is entirely verifiable from recorded history. Many accounts trace the cookies’ origin back to 13th- and 14th-century China, which was then occupied by the Mongols. According to legend, secret plans for an uprising were hidden in moon cakes that would ordinarily have contained lotus nut paste, which was unpalatable to the Mongols. The successful uprising, planned with the help of the hidden notes, led to the formation of the Ming Dynasty. This story may be true, but I have seen no evidence that it inspired the treats we know of today as fortune cookies. There can be no doubt that the modern fortune cookie design originated in California.
Fame and Fortune Will Be Yours
However, there is quite a controversy over who actually invented them. David Jung, a Chinese immigrant living in Los Angeles who founded the Hong Kong Noodle Company, claims to have invented fortune cookies in 1918—though no one seems to know where the recipe or idea came from. The alternative and generally accepted story is that they were invented in San Francisco by a Japanese immigrant. Makoto Hagiwara was the landscape designer who created the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park. According to Hagiwara, the fortune cookie was based on a Japanese treat called Tsujiura sembei. He sweetened the recipe to appeal to American tastes, enclosed thank-you notes in the cookies, and served them to his guests with tea. Depending on which account you read, Hagiwara began distributing the cookies in either 1907 or 1914, but in any case they clearly made their appearance well before the 1918 date claimed by Jung. Within a few years, however, Chinese restaurant owners in San Francisco had copied the recipe, replacing the thank-you notes with fortunes. The rest, as they say, is history.
Of course, over the past couple of decades, the fortunes that appear in fortune cookies have gotten sillier and more annoying. For one thing, they now almost always include “lucky numbers,” which mysteriously seem to match the pattern required for lottery entries. There’s also a trend toward smiley faces, which make me frown, and Chinese writing, which is just baffling considering the cookies’ origin. Even the fortunes themselves make less and less sense. Whatever happened to the simple “You will lead a long and prosperous life” or “Never eat fish on a Monday”? But when it comes to fortune cookies, I suppose an appeal to tradition is missing the point. —Joe Kissell