By Binglei Yan, Mengnan Zhang, and Tram Nguyen
A history of Fortune Cookies
The origin of fortune cookie is “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside a cookie”
Modern-day fortune cookies
The inspiration for modern-day fortune cookies may come from a Chinese legend. Between the 13th and 14th Century, the Mongols occupied China. The Chinese Resistance against the Mongol occupation encountered problems of communication due to the country’s vast size.The legend says that Chinese troops hid secret messages inside the mooncake to coordinate the resistance. On the night of the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, the Chinese rebels threw of the Mongol oppressors and established the Ming dynasty.
Chinese mooncake: the first fortune “cookie”?
However, the above story only remains a legend. Fortune cookies are most likely of Japanese origin. In the 19th century Kyoto, Japan, a cookie called tsujiura senbei (“fortune crackers”) was made and shared similar features with modern day fortune cookie. This Japanese cookie contained a fortune, called an “omikuji” and was often sold in Buddhist temples. Tsujiura senbei are a little bit larger than the modern fortune cookies; they are flavored with sesame and miso rather than vanilla and butter.
Tsujiura senbei and its omikuji fortune
So where did the modern day fortune cookie actually originate from? Both Chinese and Japanese immigrant populations in America have claimed to invent fortune cookies. The debate is so heated that it fueled a court battle in 1983, where the judge decided that the modern fortune cookie was first made in San Francisco before World War I. However, the cookie’s actual national origin was not decided upon and remained ambiguous even today.
While there are some plausible theories regarding the origin of fortune cookies, many researchers agree that fortune cookies were invented by Japanese immigrants in the early 20th century America. Probably the most credible claimant was Seiichi Kito, the founder of the Fugetsu-do baker. Kito said that he modified the Japanese recipe of tsujiura senbei to create the fortune cookies that can satisfy American tastes. He then sold the cookies to restaurants in Los Angeles.
However, during World War II, thousands of Japanese people, including those who made fortune cookies, were locked up in internment camps. Many Chinese bakeries wanted to fill the vacuum and took over the manufacturing of fortune cookies. As Chinese food became increasingly popular on the West Coast, meals were often accompanied by fortune cookies. By the end of World War II, fortune cookies were almost exclusively being served in Chinese restaurants in California.
That is how fortune cookies end up in Americanized Chinese food restaurants today.
The Lucky Chinese Cookie Factory
Our group visited the Lucky Chinese Cookie Factory on January 31st. Situated on the less crowded 9th street, the factory is sandwiched between a pizza shop and a hair salon. In the beginning, we assumed that it must be a large factory; however, it is only a small room with piles of cookie boxes, three old machines, and a counter near the door entrance. Not allowed to photograph the machines, we took pictures of various types of fortune cookies on the counter. The cookies have strawberry, chocolate, coffee, and mixed flavors; there are also X-rated and plain ones on display. All cookies were sold in low prices; the most expensive X-rated type was $3.25 per package.
Before coming to the factory, we prepared some interview questions for the workers and the customers there.
- How long have you been working here?
- How long has the factory been opened?
- Do you know the origin of fortune cookies?
- How are the fortune cookies here distributed?
- How many fortune cookies can the factory produce everyday?
- Do you like to eat fortune cookies?
- Have you had fortune cookies at any other restaurants besides Chinese restaurants?
- Do you know the origin of fortune cookies?
- Do you like to eat fortune cookies?
- What do you think about fortune cookies after visiting here?
- Have you ever tried fortune cookies with other flavors besides the plain one?
(Our set of questions for the customers was not used because the two customers we met could not speak English or Mandarin)
On that day,there were only four workers in the factory, and we interviewed three of them (they all share Chinese origin). Our first interviewee was a middle-aged woman; her answers to our questions were very general. She said she has been working in the factory for many years, and the factory has been opened for many years. She believed that the origin of fortune cookies could be either China or America. According to her, the fortune cookies made in the factory are distributed to everywhere in America, and the workers can produce even ten thousands of cookies per day. She also mentioned that she did not like to eat fortune cookies. We then tried to interview a middle-aged man; however, the man refused to answer our inquiry by saying that he was too busy with his work. The last person we interviewed was the salesman who greeted customers at the counter. Lucky for us, his answers were much more specific than those of the middle-aged woman. Although he has only worked in the factory for two months, he knew that the factory has been opened for thirty years. He thought that fortune cookies must have been brought from China by Chinese people and then spiked in popularity in America from Los Angeles. His answer was not correct though. The salesman also said that the fortune cookies of the factory were only distributed to Chinese restaurants in the Philadelphia area. Everyday, they could make 3500 fortune cookies. It is interesting that the salesman loved eating fortune cookies before, but after working at the factory, he no longer liked them.
The Making of Fortune Cookies
Fortune cookies were first made by hand. In 1974, Edward Louie, the owner of the Lotus Fortune Cookies Company in San Francisco, invented a machine that could put the fortune paper inside the cookie. In response to the high demand for fortune cookies, Yong Lee created the first fully automatic fortune cookie machine in 1980. The operation of modern fortune cookie is quite simple. Basically, many baking ingredients, including butter, flour, oil, vanilla, and sugar are mixed together. Then batter is poured into cups, which which are then covered with metal plates to keep the batter flat. Next, bake for about 1 to 3 ½ minutes. Vacuums suck the cookies into place, using metal fingers to fold the fortune in half and “smuggle” the fortune inside. The cookies then have a distinct half-moon shape. They are cooled, packaged, and ready to be sold.
The machines in Chinatown’s Lucky Chinese Cookie Factory are not highly automatic as machines that mass-produce fortune cookies. On the day we visited the factory, only two out of three machines were in operation. The vacuum that was supposed to place the fortune inside the cookie missed its job sometimes (or it could put more than one fortune inside a cookie). When these circumstances happened, the worker sitting besides the machine would immediately remove these “bad luck” cookies.
While a more modern machine can do both the baking and wrapping of the cookies, the baking machine and wrapping machine in the Lucky Cookie Factory are separate items. Workers threw the freshly made cookies in a box and began to wrap them. We also noticed that the fortune from this factory was a little different from the one we normally get at Chinese restaurants. The usual fortune includes a Chinese word, an English quote, and a series of random numbers. However, the fortune from this factory only has the quote and numbers.
Today, people can buy mini fortune cookies machines at a relatively low price to make their customized fortune cookies at home. It is interesting to see how the role of fortune cookies has changed over time. Fortune cookies were something that Americans would expect to enjoy only at Chinese restaurants. However, with the introduction of the mini machines, fortune cookies have been gradually becoming a part of the American families’ diet. Who knows, Americans may prefer fortune cookies over cupcakes and donuts in the future?!
After visiting the Lucky Chinese Cookie Factory, we keep pondering over the real identity of fortune cookies. Is it a Chinese food, a Japanese food, or an American food? Who was the actual inventor of the modern day fortune cookies? From our interview, the salesman said that their fortune cookies were only sent to Chinese restaurants in Philadelphia. For most people in American, fortune cookies seem to assume an automatic Chinese identity because the cookies are mainly served in Chinese restaurants. As fortune cookies now begin to emerge in Chinese restaurants in China, some Chinese people wonder on Twitter why this American food appears in China. For people living in China, fortune cookies are foreign and carry the American identity. It is thus hard to say to which nationality the identity of fortune cookies should be associated with. Perhaps as for now, we can agree with one man in the movie “The Killing of a Chinese Cookie” who said that, “The Japanese invented the fortune cookie, the Chinese advertised it, and the Americans tasted it.”
Borgna Brunner, History of the Fortune Cookies Dan Myers, Things you didn’t know about fortune cookies Jennifer Lee, Solving a Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery Inside a Cookie Jesse Rhodes, Cracking Open the History of Fortune Cookies