When I was a kid the fortune cookies delivered with the check at the end of the meal were the highlight of dining at a Chinese restaurant. So maybe you’re like me, and always assumed fortune cookies were a Chinese or Chinese-American invention.
But it turns out fortune cookies may be of Japanese origin. According to Jennifer 8. Lee, a former NY Times reporter and author of the delightful book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food, fortune cookies are a descendant of tsijiura senbei, a kind of grilled rice cracker sold outside Shinto shrines in Kyoto.(1) Tsuijiura is a kind of note, similar to omikuji, with a fortune written on it (please refer to my post “A different kind of tie” from January 2016). Senbei is the Japanese word for cracker or cookie.
The oldest existent printed reference we have to fortune cookies appears to be a 1878 Japanese book titled Moshiogusa Kinsei Kidan, which features an illustration of a Japanese man, dressed in a kimono and sporting a Japanese topknot, making fortune cookies on a cast iron grill.(2) According to Jennifer Lee, the first company to sell fortune cookies in the US was a Los Angeles confectionary company named Fugetsu-do which was founded by Seiinchi Kito in 1903.
Lee suggests one explanation for the association of fortune cookies with Chinese rather than Japanese food. She reports that a company named Umeya was delivering fortune cookies to 120 Japanese-owned restaurants in the Los Angeles area by the 1930s, and then points out that many of these restaurants actually served Chinese food. Perhaps Japanese immigrants were the first to pair fortune cookies with Chinese food, and then others who opened Chinese restaurants after that time continued the tradition. I can tell you that they don’t serve fortune cookies in restaurants in China.
If reading about fortune cookies has made you hungry to taste them again, there’s a simple Japanese-style recipe for them on Jennifer D’Agostino’s blog. Here’s the link: http://www.jenniferdagostino.ca/blog/2016/4/8/recipe-tsujiura-senbei
If you make them, you can write your own fortunes to insert inside them…. and your fortunes will probably be superior to the ones I’ve been getting from my local Chinese take-out lately.
(1) Lee, Jennifer 8. The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food. New York: Twelve, 2008, pp 144-150.
(2) jenniferdagostino.ca/blog/2016/4/8/recipe-tsujiura-senbei, downloaded August 29, 2016.