The origin of fortune cookies


Fortune Cookies

...of myth and history

Who doesn’t know them?

These crunchy little cookies with the wise, humorous or didactic sayings. Especially in Western culture you get them commonly served in Asian restaurants after the meal. Even in the supermarkets they can be found from time to time. Once cracked, the small strip of paper discloses his aphorisms. Sometimes likewise with funny comments or predictions for the future. However, our familiar form of the fortune cookies is in most Asian territories nearly unknown. The reason is that the fortune cookies, though a Chinese tradition is imputed, are in their present form an adaptation of an old Japanese recipe by the American gastronomy.

Chinese tradition?
Chinese moon cake (yuèbing, 月饼)

Due to a legend, where hidden messages has been smuggled hidden in Chinese moon cakes (yuèbing, 月饼), the origin of the fortune cookies is often seen in China.

The moon cake is traditionally served for many different occasions, whether festive, family or vocational. Up to nowadays they are a specialty of the country. The moon cake can be filled both sweet and salty, and are often aromatized with a paste containing ingredients of the lotus flower.

Between the 13th and 14th Century according to our chronology, China was occupied by the Mongols. The Chinese Resistances against the Mongol occupation had severe problems communicating with each other due to constant controls and the country's vast size.

The legend twines around this rebels, that they have used moon cakes to smuggle secret messages to coordinate the resistance in this way. The patriotic revolutionary Chu Yuan Chang is said to have disguised himself as a Taoist priest to travel through the country and distribute these moon cakes in occupied cities.

Elsewhere, similar tales can be found. However, their veracity may be doubted, as with the Chinese legend. Allegedly also in the Turkish liberation war (1919 to 1923) small messages were hidden in aliment. During the Second World War, the French resistance fighters have smuggled in a similar way messages to the Allies. At the end of the Second World War during the last weeks of the occupation the Austrians have likewise transmitted messages concealed in food.

Beyond the legends - the roots are in Japan
Tsujiura Senbei (1878) from the book Moshiogusa Kinsei Kidan (19th Jh.)

The true precursor of the fortune cookies is Japan, with its Omikuji and Tsujiura Senbei. Omikuji are small horoscopes, which can be purchased at temples and shrines throughout Japan. Tsujiura Senbei is a cracker, though composed of other ingredients, that corresponds in shape and preparing today's fortune cookies. In the 19th Century book „Moshiogusa Kinsei Kidan“ (Moshiogusa Strange Tales From Recent Times) is a story of Shinoda Senka, illustrated by Mosai Yoshitora, from the year 1878. It describes based on the character Kinnosuke, an assistant to a Sendai stall, how the Tsujiura Senbei was prepared and small rolled Omikuji was put into it.

The first producer of fortune cookies in America was the native Japanese Seiichi Kito, who immigrated to America in 1903 and opened a confectionery specializing in Japanese sweets as a family business in Los Angeles: The Fugetsu-Do, which is even today in the family business of the descendants.

Picture of Makato Hagiwara and his wife (1924)

At this time in San Francisco the native Japanese Makato Hagiwara led the Japanese Tea Garden in the Golden Gate Park, where he is said to have served these fortune cookies to tea the first time in 1909th.

However, only through the businessman David Juan, the fortune cookies became popular. Juan David, an American of Chinese descent, was the first in mass production of fortune cookies in 1918 and successfully marketed them in connection with the Chinese legend. Then in 1964 the fortune cookies in the USA were produced by machine. Finally in the early nineties the cookies were exported to China the first time, where they till then were entirely unknown and further scorned as too American.

Add comment ►


⇐ Return to the Home page