The invention of the fortune cookie is a strange, sordid story that might surprise you. At its roots, the history of the little crack-them-open-for-your-fortune cookies you’re familiar with is a mystery, with attribution for their creation claimed by a few different entrepreneurial individuals.
The truth may never fully come to light, but it’s fun to crack open the cookie and take a peek inside. Here’s what we know about the history of fortune cookies.
Modern Fortune Cookies Come From America
California, to be exact. At least, that’s the legend.
Surprise, right? You were expecting that fortune cookies originated in some far-away place a long time ago where Asian food is always on the menu. In fact, you could swear you saw a Chinese phrase decorating the last fortune you pulled from inside the sweet cookie.
It’s an unexpected revelation to many people that fortune cookies aren’t Chinese, especially since fortune cookies are most often associated with Chinese cuisine. The modern fortune cookie’s invention and introduction is often attributed to one of three people, and all of their claims were made in California:
Makota Hagiwara was a Japanese landscape designer responsible for the expansion of the Japanese Tea Garden at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, California. Hagiwara’s involvement with the Japanese Tea Garden lasted from 1895 until his death in 1925, and it was during this period that his fortune cookie claim to fame took root.
Fortune cookie legend has it that Makota Hagiwara first served the now-iconic dessert cookie—most likely made locally by the San Francisco bakery Benkyodo—to visitors of the tea garden.
Hong Kong Noodle Company founder and Chinese immigrant David Jung—only 400 miles away from Hagiwara, in Los Angeles—is also in contention for the title of fortune cookie inventor. The dispute between San Francisco and Los Angeles fortune-cookie rights was even brought forward in a mock trial by San Francisco’s Court of Historical Review in 1983 in an attempt to settle the matter once and for all. Included as evidence was a cookie whose fortune read "S.F. Judge who rules for L.A. Not Very Smart Cookie." Los Angeles denounced the ruling.
Fortune cookie legend has it that David Jung invented the modern cookie in 1918, passing them out for free on the streets and including Bible verses as fortunes. He was the first mass producer of the modern fortune cookie.
Seiichi Kito, owner and operator of the Japanese confectionary store Fugetsu-do, continues the dispute of Los Angeles vs. San Francisco for fortune cookie fame. The Kito family has disputed the David Jung claim and stands behind their own that Seiichi Kito’s Fugetsu-do in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, is where the cookie first crumbled, so to speak.
Legend has it that Seiichi Kito got his idea for fortune cookies from traditional Omikuji (fortune strips) sold at temples in Japan. His claim also purports that it was his selling of fortune cookies to Chinese restaurants—both in San Francisco and Los Angeles—that made them so popular as a Chinese dessert in America.
The Chinese Fortune Cookie Myth
The myth that fortune cookies originated in China likely stems from the fact that they are served in Chinese restaurants in countries around the world. The popular consensus is that fortune cookies are a Chinese restaurant tradition. While this may be a pseudo-truth due to the modern prevalence of the cookie, it’s not the whole truth, as illustrated above.
In fact, Snopes claims that in 1989 an entrepreneur in Hong Kong imported fortune cookies from America, selling them as luxury desserts in delicatessens, and marketing them as “Genuine American Fortune Cookies.”
The Japanese Fortune Cookie Claim
While a similar cookie, also containing a fortune wedged inside, was made in Kyoto, Japan, as far back as the 19th century, its differences are enough to set it apart from the modern fortune cookie with which many people are most familiar.
That doesn’t stop supporters of a Japan-to-America fortune cookie origin story from continuing their quest to uncover the truth. Japan’s Yasuko Nakamachi tried to definitively tie the fortune cookie’s history to Japanese beginnings in a New York Times article from 2008.
Japanese fortune cookies, or tsujiura senbei, are larger, darker, and contain sesame and miso instead of vanilla and butter. These versions of the cookie also contain a fortune, but instead of being folded into the hollow inside the cookie, they’re wedged into the cookie’s bend.
The World May Never Know the Whole Fortune Cookie Truth
When all is said and done, the truth may never be settled upon as far as the modern fortune cookie is concerned. What is known for certain is that millions of fortune cookies are made every day, and the tradition of opening one up and reading your fortune doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.
Your lucky numbers are: 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, and 42.
Cover image credit: jirkaejc / iStock