Once and for all, fortune cookies are not Chinese

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

The first time I ever heard of a fortune cookie was when I read Fifteen by Beverly Cleary. I was 8, and at the time was attending an American school in Shanghai. There’s a part of the book where the protagonist goes on a date in Chinatown, and I was fascinated. Chinatown sounded awesome: like a Disney version of the very un-glamorous reality of living in mainland China in the mid-80s. And what on earth where these “fortune cookies” they spoke of?

(Later in life I would become equally fascinated by another supposedly Chinese thing: those cardboard Chinese food takeout boxes I would see on American sitcoms playing on Hong Kong TV. Hong Kong was thoroughly wed to styrofoam, so cardboard seemed oddly barabaric to me.)

So if fortune cookies aren’t Chinese, where did they come from? According to the New York Times, one researcher believes they’re actually from – wait for it – Japan!

Her prime pieces of evidence are the centuries-old small family bakeries making obscure fortune cookie-shaped crackers by hand near a temple outside Kyoto. She has also turned up many references to the cookies in Japanese literature and history, including an 1878 etching of a man making them in a bakery – decades before the first reports of American fortune cookies.

The idea that fortune cookies come from Japan is counterintuitive, to say the least. “I am surprised,” said Derrick Wong, the vice president of the largest fortune cookie manufacturer in the world, Wonton Food, based in Brooklyn. “People see it and think of it as a Chinese food dessert, not a Japanese food dessert,” he said. But, he conceded, “The weakest part of the Chinese menu is dessert.”

Amen to that. Red bean soup? Bleah!

Early on, Chinese-owned restaurants discovered the cookies, too. Ms. Nakamachi speculates that Chinese-owned manufacturers began to take over fortune cookie production during World War II, when Japanese bakeries all over the West Coast closed as Japanese-Americans were rounded up and sent to internment camps.

Mr. Wong pointed out: “The Japanese may have invented the fortune cookie. But the Chinese people really explored the potential of the fortune cookie. It’s Chinese-American culture. It only happens here, not in China.”