The intriguing history of the fortune cookie

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Perhaps one of the most important, if not the most fun part of a meal at a Chinese restaurant is the fortune cookie at the end. Open it up, and you get to see whether or not great things are coming your way or what types of things you should refrain from doing. There is even the story of someone winning the lottery by using a fortune cookie’s lucky numbers. And of course, who can forget the awesome “learn Chinese” cookies which have interesting and useful Chinese words and phrases on them.

But where do they come from? And why do we eat them? Well, then answer may shock you.

Actually Japanese?

As it turns out, the cookie part of the fortune cookie isn’t Chinese at all. It is, in fact a Japanese invention. The cookies, called tsujiura senbei, were primarily sold in Japanese tea houses.

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The little fortune part part of the cookie, called omikuji, are typical of the cookies sold at tea houses around the Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine located in Kyoto, Japan. In fact, you can still get these cookies by this shrine today.

Cookie wars

When the cookie was first created in the United States is actually a mystery, with two people claiming credit for the invention. The cookie as it is known today was either created at a Japanese tea house in San Francisco or at a chinese restaurant in Los Angeles called the Hong Kong Noodle Company.

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To settle the manner, a judge at the Court of Historical Review in San Francisco was called upon to determine the actual origin of the fortune cookie. However, the city of Los Angeles says that there was a bit of foul play involved, as one of the pieces of evidence submitted was a fortune cookie with a fortune stating that “S.F. Judge who rules for L.A. Not Very Smart Cookie.” The cookie was then ruled to be of San Fransisco origin.

Why are they associated with Chinese food?

For much of their beginning history, the fortune cookie was associated almost exclusively with Japanese tea houses on the West Coast of the United States. In fact, they were referred to as fortune tea cakes up until World War Two. They only began entering Chinese restaurants in the 1920s when an enterprising young Japanese man began selling them to Chinese restaurants in California.

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However, the fortune cookie turned Chinese during World War Two. As hundreds of thousands of Japanese-Americans were rounded up from the West Coast and sent to internment camps due to US government fears that they were Japanese spies, there was all of a sudden no one to work the Japanese factories producing the cookies. This gave Chinese-Americans the ability to come in and take over the manufacturing process, and the cookies have been associated with Chinese food ever since.

The cookies in China

No one in China actually knows about fortune cookies. In fact, they are considered to be “American food.” It wasn’t until 1989 that someone tried selling American made fortune cookies to East Asia. First sold in Hong Kong, they were considered to be too American, and four years later, the company importing them stopped due to lack of interest.

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Interestingly, in what could have been a huge cultural faux pas, when Chinese basketball player Yao Ming played his first game against the Miami Heat, the team passed out 8,000 fortune cookies to promote their new player. Yao wasn’t offended though, mainly because he had never seen one before.

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