If you’ve ever been to a Chinese restaurant, you’ve most likely received a fortune cookie at the end of your meal. You’ve also probably wondered how they managed to get that tiny slip of paper into a hard, closed cookie.
Should you not have seen a fortune cookie, let me describe one for you. They are small, hard golden cookies that can fit into the palm of your hand. But there’s one thing that makes them unique: they’re folded into a butterfly shape to create a pocket holding a ½” x 2” paper “fortune.”
Fortune cookies often come at the end of a meal in a Chinese, and sometimes Japanese, restaurant. Traditionally, the fortunes were Confucian phrases about life (Confucius was a famous Chinese philosopher from the 6th century BC—over 2500 years ago!). Nowadays, the fortunes inside the cookies contain just about everything from quotes to advice. Some companies even let you write your own fortunes! Often, they are written in both English and Chinese, and may have lottery numbers and smiley faces on them.
Before we get to how fortune cookies are made, let’s try to find out where they originated. The history of fortune cookies is a little murky. Some think that modern-day fortune cookies were inspired by 14th century Chinese rebels against Mongol invaders. Legend says that a Taoist priest and his followers sent messages hidden inside of traditional Chinese moon cakes (Chinese pastries stuffed with lotus seed paste) to inform rebels about potential uprisings against the invaders. Others believe that the fortune cookies have Japanese roots in traditional tsujiura senbei (rice cakes with paper fortunes stuffed inside), made at the Hyotanyama Inari shrine in the 19th century. Another group of fortune cookie enthusiasts thinks that the idea started around the same time, but in this instance by Chinese railroad workers in America who would hand out cakes stuffed with holiday wishes.
The invention of fortune cookies as we know them today is just as difficult to pin down. Most people nowadays believe that fortune cookies were created by a Japanese man named Makoto Hagiwara in 1914 in San Francisco. Hagiwara owned what is now called the Golden Gate Park Japanese Tea Garden, where he served tea and fortune cookies. However, many still hold to the popular belief that fortune cookies were invented by a Chinese-American named David (Tsung) Jung, who owned the Hong Kong Noodle Company in Los Angeles. He claimed to have stuffed the cookies with passages from the Bible and handed them out to unemployed men near his bakery in 1918. In 1983, the debate between the two confectioners came to a head in the Court of Historical Review in San Francisco when their dispute was decided by Judge Daniel M. Hanlon, in favor of Hagiwara.
So, just how did these two gentlemen manage to get fortunes inside their cookies? Well, the process is actually very simple, and relies on the basic chemistry of a common ingredient—sugar. The batter for fortune cookies is usually composed of sugar, flour, water and eggs. When warm, the dough is flexible and can be molded into many shapes. When the baked dough cools though, the sugar hardens into a crispy, shiny cookie. Originally, bakers would mix the dough, pour it out into 3” circles, bake them, quickly place a fortune in the middle and use chopsticks to fold them into the familiar shape before they cooled.
In 1974 fortune cookie manufacturing changed forever. Edward Louie, the owner of the Lotus Fortune Cookie Company in San Francisco, invented a machine that could insert the fortune and fold the cookie. In 1980 Yong Lee created the first fully automated fortune cookie machine, called the Fortune III. Modern machines follow the same steps of handmade fortune cookies: they mix ingredients, pour batter into 3” cups which are then covered with metal plates to keep the batter flat and bake for about 3 ½ minutes. Vacuums then suck fortunes into place, use metal fingers to fold the fortune in half to trap the fortune inside, bend the cookie into shape, and cool and package the final cookie. Now fortune cookie machines like the Kitamura FCM-8006W can make up to 8,000 cookies in an hour!
Fortune cookies are a prominent part of Asian-American cuisine and have filtered into popular culture as well. People create customized fortune cookies to send funny messages to friends and family—and sometimes to even propose marriage to a loved one! They are even used in advertising campaigns for corporations. Even though popular belief says otherwise, modern fortune cookies are as American as baseball and apple pie.
- Fortune cookies in The Oxford companion to American food and drink. Edited by Andrew F. Smith. Oxford, New York, Oxford University Press, 2007. p. 233.
- Lazarus, David. Changing fortunes. The San Francisco chronicle, Aug. 7, 1999: p. B1 and B8.
- Lazarus, David. Unfolding the origin of a confection. The San Francisco chronicle, Aug. 7, 1999: p. B8.
- Lee, Jennifer 8. The fortune cookie chronicles: adventures in the world of Chinese food. New York, NY, Twelve, 2008. 307 p.
- Moore, Scott. Now you know column. Smart cookie. The Washington post. March 14, 2003: p. C12.
- Sugars in The Science of bakery products. Edited by W.P, Edwards. Cambridge, Eng., Royal Society of Chemistry, 2007. pp. 215-216.
- Tompkins, Joshua. Who invented the fortune cookie? American Heritage, v. 56, Feb./Mar. 2005: 14-15.
- United States Patent 3950123: Apparatus for making a food product -
Patent for Edward Louie’s original fortune cookie machine
- United States Patent 4339993: Fortune cookie machine
Patent for Yong Lee’s popular fortune cookie machine.
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A fortune cookie. Photo courtesy of Colin Robertson.
Fortune cookies, wrapped and ready to go! Photo courtesy of Steven G. de
A fortune cookie broken open to reveal the message. Photo courtesy of Colin Robertson.
Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company. Photo courtesy of biskuit.
Close up of the finished cookies. Photo courtesy of biskuit.
Japanese Tea Garden, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, Calif. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
New Year's feast. Chinatown, New York City Jan. 26, 1906. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
Aa hostess at the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park offers a cookie to a squirrel. From the San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection
Japanese woodcut print showing several women and a waitress in the Miyamoto shop. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.