Those thin, wafer-like crackers with a soft tint of yellow and a subtle taste of vanilla folded gently to encase a rather enigmatic yet oddly comforting rolled up paper fortune has become an icon of Chinese American restaurants. Three billion cookies are made each year almost entirely in the United States, but the origins of fortune cookies didn’t come from China nor did it come from Chinese Americans. The roots of fortune cookies can actually be traced to Japan. So how were fortune cookies adopted into Chinese American food culture? It’s a story about immigration.
The emblematic folded shape of the fortune cookie was found in 1870s Kyoto by researcher Yasuko Nakamachi. She gathered evidence of these cookies in family bakeries owned by generations outside a Shinto shrine in Kyoto. Instead of commercialized vanilla scents, these cookies were made of miso and sesame resulting in a darker cookie. Nakamachi is the crowned expert in the history of the fortune cookie. She used old documents and even illustrations that referenced the traditional fortune cookie known as “tsujiura senbei” in Japanese. Instead of a paper fortune enclosed inside the hollows of the cookie, Japanese fortune cookies pinched the fortunes into the folds of the cookie.
Anyhow, this is where immigration changed the fates of these centuries-old Kyoto cookies. After the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 banned Chinese workers from entering the country, the cheap labor market was replaced by an influx of Japanese immigrants in the 1880s and early 1890s coming into Hawaii and California. These cookies started popping up in several Japanese bakeries—one in San Francisco called the Japanese Tea Garden (traced back as the original vanilla and buttermilk flavoring) and three in Los-Angeles called Fugetsu-Do, Umeya, and the Hong Kong Noodle Company. Japanese immigrants actually opened up Chinese restaurant businesses.
Even as the fortune cookie traveled from Japan to America, the fusion between Japanese and Chinese businesses was already taking place. Jennifer Lee traced immigration patterns of the fortune cookie in her book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food. She observed that Americans at the time of Japanese immigration in the 1890s opened Chinese restaurants rather than their own cuisine simply because Americans weren’t big fans of Japanese food like raw fish.
However, the crossover of Chinese businesses run by Japanese owners doesn’t fully explain the complete adoption of fortune cookies into the Chinese American mainstream. In fact, the transfer of fortune cookies from Japanese bakeries to Chinese restaurants was a product of Japanese ostracisation following World War II. Reacting against the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt relocated almost 120,000 Japanese civilians in internment camps. This executive order displaced the Japanese from their livelihoods, homes, and businesses. With the closing of Japanese bakeries, Chinese entrepreneurs saw an opening. These cookies became increasingly popular with a growing demand. After the war, nearly 250 million cookies were produced every year by Chinese bakeries and factories.
Like most things in America, its histories are defined by stories of immigration. The transfer of one culture to another is a uniquely American experience. Fortune cookies aren’t Chinese, let alone solely a Chinese American invention. All of this is packed neatly into a perfectly manufactured yellow-tinted cookie.
Cover image courtesy of The Curious Origin of Fortune Cookies