The Mysterious Origin of the Fortune Cookie

colored-fortune-cookie-array-NEW-purple500Where does the fortune cookie come from? The easy answer is that the fortune cookie as we know it today – with its distinctive shape and a fortune wrapped inside – is not Chinese at all. Modern day fortune cookies first appeared in California in the early 1900’s. Tracking down who invented the cookie that no Chinese take-out or restaurant meal would be complete without is tougher.

It is actually an American invention originating in California. There are many theories, and much speculation surrounding the mysterious origin of the fortune cookie. As to in which city the fortune cookie originated and as to who invented it, Chinese-American, Japanese-American or 14th century revolutionists, there has been much debate. In 1983, there was even a mock trial held in San Francisco’s pseudo-legal Court of Historical Review to determine the origins of the fortune cookie.

Legendary History of the Fortune Cookie #1

The Chinese immigrant, David Jung, founded the Hong Kong Noodle Company while living in Los Angeles, invented the cookie in 1918. Concerned about the poor he saw wandering near his shop, he created the cookie and passed them out free on the streets. Each cookie contained a strip of paper with an inspirational Bible scripture on it, written for Jung by a Presbyterian minister.

Legendary History of the Fortune Cookie #2

Some claim a Japanese immigrant, Makoto Hagiwara, invented the fortune cookie in San Francisco. Hagiwara designer of the famous Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park was an avid gardener until an anti-Japanese mayor fired him from his job around the turn of the century. Later a new mayor did reinstate him. In 1914, to show his deep appreciation to friends who had stood by him during his time of hardship, Hagiwara made a cookie and placed a thank you note inside. After passing them out to those who had helped him, he began serving them regularly at the Japanese Tea Garden. In 1915, they were displayed at the Panama-Pacific Exhibition, San Francisco’s world fair.

Legendary History of the Fortune Cookie #3

The Original Idea

In the early 1900’s a plan was hatched to transform San Francisco’s Chinatown from a ghetto into a cute tourist attraction. San Francisco’s Chinatown promised tourist a real Oriental experience. The city promoted Chinese decorations, pageantry and architecture. Supposedly, increased tourism led to the invention of the fortune cookie to fill the void of a dessert item. To fill the tourists demands for a dessert, a worker in San Francisco’s Kay Heong Noodle Factory invented a plain flat cookie in the 1930s. This plain flat cookie, while still warm, was folded around a little piece of paper on which a hand-written prediction or piece of Chinese wisdom would be found.

Legendary History of the Fortune Cookie #4

During the 13th and 14th centuries, China was occupied by Mongols. The story goes that the Mongols had no taste for Lotus Nut Paste. So, the Chinese people hid sayings inscribed with the date of their revolution inside the Moon Cakes where the yolk would typically reside. Under the disguise of a Taoist priest, patriotic revolutionary Chu Yuan Chang, entered occupied walled cities to hand out Moon Cakes to other revolutionaries. These instructions coordinated the uprising that successfully allowed the Chinese people to form the basis of the Ming Dynasty.

Moon Festival became regularly celebrated. Part of that tradition was the passing out of cakes with sayings inside them.

It is thought that this legend is what inspired the Chinese 49’ers working on the construction of American Railways through the Sierra Nevada to California. When Moon Festival rolled around, they did not have any traditional moon cakes. So out of necessity they improvised with hard biscuits and the Fortune Cookie was born

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Most sources credit either Makoto Hagiwara or David Jung. Of the two, Hagiwara, seems to have the stronger claim.

Hagiwara, a Japanese immigrant who had served as official caretaker of the Japanese Tea Gardens since 1895, began serving the cookies at the Tea Garden sometime between 1907 and 1914. (His grandson, George Hagiwara believes the correct date is between 1907 – 1909). The cookies were based on Japanese senbei – grilled rice wafers. According to some sources; the cookies contained thank you notes instead of fortunes, and may have been Hagiwara’s way of thanking the public for getting him rehired after he was fired by a racist Mayor.

Meanwhile, Canton native David Jung had immigrated to Los Angeles. In 1916 he founded the Hong Kong Noodle Company. He claimed to have invented the fortune cookie around 1918, handing out baked cookies filled with inspiring passages of scripture to unemployed men.

However, even the Los Angeles Almanac website admits that there is no surviving documentation showing how he came up with the idea.

In 1983, the San Francisco Court of Historical Review held a mock trial to settle the issue for once and for all. (The Court has no legal authority; other weighty culinary issues they have settled include whether or not chicken soup deserves its reputation as “Jewish Penicillin”).

 fortune-cookieDuring the trial someone provided the judge with a fortune cookie containing the message: “S.F. Judge who rules for L.A. not very smart cookie.” In fairness to Daniel M. Hanlon, the real-life federal judge who presided over the case, his decision rested on weightier pieces of evidence, including a set of grills. Still, it came as no surprise when the Court sided with Hagiwara and ruled that San Francisco is the birthplace of the fortune cookie.

Not surprisingly, Angelenos ignored the ruling: many sources continue to credit Jung with inventing fortune cookies. But for now, Los Angeles (County) will have to be satisfied with being the official birthplace of the Cobb Salad and the Shirley Temple mocktail.

Or maybe not. Yet another possibility is that the fortune cookie was invented by a Japanese American living in Los Angeles. That is the claim of the proprietors of Fugetsu-do confectionery, a family owned and operated bakery in the Little Tokyo district of downtown Los Angeles. According to the Kito family, the idea for the fortune cookie originated with their grandfather, Seiichi Kito, who founded Fugetsu-do in 1903. While the confectionary quickly became famous for its mochi – sweet round rice cakes accompanied with everything from sweet red bean paste to peanut butter – at some point Kito began making fortune cookies and selling them to Chinese restaurants.

man_file_1051412_unfortunate-fortune-cookies-wasnt-chickenAccording to sources his inspiration was omi-kuji – fortunes written on slips of paper found in Japanese Buddhist temples. (Today, you’ll find omikuji-senbei – “fortune crackers” – sold in bakeries in Japan). Their website alludes to a 1927 letter crediting a Japanese American living in Los Angeles with inventing the fortune cookie. Visitors to the shop can still see the original fortune cookie molds on display in the front store window “collecting dust and memories.”

But where does the inspiration for modern-day fortune cookies come from? Despite the fact that fortune cookies have proved about as popular in China as a plate of cooked spinach is to the average five-year old, their origins may be Chinese after all. Every fall (the 15th day of the eighth month in the Chinese calendar, to be exact) the Chinese celebrate the mid-Autumn Moon Festival.

Children hear the legend of how, in the 14th century, the Chinese threw off their Mongol oppressors by hiding messages in Mooncakes (which the Mongols did not like to eat). On the night of the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, the rebels attacked and overthrew the government, leading to the establishment of the Ming dynasty.

Still, a legend is only a legend, no matter how charming. And today’s Mooncakes don’t contain messages. But some believe that during the American railway boom of the 1850’s, Chinese railway workers came up with their own substitute for the mooncakes they were unable to buy: homemade biscuits with good luck messages inside.

Like the mooncake legend, no proof for this story exists. And, thanks to the exhaustive efforts of Japanese researcher Yasuko Nakamachi, we now know that at about the same time the Chinese railway workers were laying down track, “tsujiura senbei” (rice cakes containing paper fortunes) were being made at the Hyotanyama Inari shrine outside Kyoto in Japan. Nakamachi uncovered an illustration in an 1878 book showing a man grilling tsujiura senbei outside the shrine. (source: Jennifer 8 Lee, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles).

So, where do fortune cookies come from? At this point, the weight of historical evidence seems to agree with a man interviewed for the movie “The Killing of a Chinese Cookie” who states: “The Japanese invented the fortune cookie, the Chinese advertised it, and the Americans tasted it.” Still, as author Jennifer 8. Lee says, it’s “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside a cookie.”

Fortune Cookie

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