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The Surprising Origins of the Fortune Cookie

February 11, 2021 in History

By Michael Lee

They didn’t come from China.

Where did fortune cookies come from—and how did they become so ubiquitous?

It’s customary in many restaurants for diners to receive a small treat with their check: mints, hard candy, sometimes even chocolate. But at many Chinese restaurants around the United States, patrons get something a little different: a Pac-Man shaped, vanilla-flavored cookie containing a finger-sized slip of paper printed with a pithy fortune or aphorism.

While many Americans associate these fortune cookies with Chinese restaurants—and by extension, Chinese culture—they are actually more readily traceable to 19th-century Japan and 20th-century America.

From Kyoto to California

Women working at the Lotus Chinese Fortune Cookie bakery in San Francisco, c. 1977.

As far back as the 1870s, some confectionary shops near Kyoto, Japan carried a cracker with the same folded shape and a fortune tucked into the bend, instead of its hollow inside. It’s called the “tsujiura senbei,” or “fortune cracker,” according to Jennifer 8. Lee, author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food, which recounts the history of the cookie.

The Japanese cracker, Lee wrote, was larger and darker, made with sesame and miso instead of the vanilla and butter used to flavor fortune cookies found in modern Chinese restaurants in America. Lee cited Japanese researcher Yasuko Nakamachi, who said she found these cookies at a generations-old family bakery near a popular Shinto shrine just outside of Kyoto in the late 1990s. Nakamachi also uncovered storybooks from 1878 with illustrations of an apprentice who worked in a senbei store making the tsujiura senbei, along with other kinds of crackers.

Lee says the fortune cookie likely arrived in the United States along with Japanese immigrants who came to Hawaii and California between the 1880s and early 1900s, after the Chinese Exclusion Act’s expulsion of Chinese workers left a demand for cheap labor. Japanese bakers set up shop in places such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, making miso and sesame-flavored “fortune cookie-ish” crackers, among other treats.

One of the most oft-repeated origin stories of the American fortune cookie cites the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park as the first known U.S. restaurant to serve the treat. The Tea Garden sourced their cookies from a local bakery called Benkyodo, which claims to have pioneered the vanilla and butter flavoring, and to have invented a machine sometime around 1911 to mass produce the cookies. …read more

Source: HISTORY

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