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Published on Jun 4, 2013 in Asia, China, News

How did Fortune Cookies get to be Chinese?

It will come as a surprise to many that the fortune cookie which we receive with virtually every Chinese meal in the United States was actually invented in Japan. It has virtually nothing to do with China and, in fact, in the decade plus that I and my partner Dave Dodge have gone to China, we’ve never once seen or been given a fortune cookie. They don’t exist in China.

The fortune cookie was actually invented in Kyoto, Japan in the 19th century. This cookie differed from today’s version in that it was a bit larger, made of darker dough, and contained sesame and miso rather than vanilla and butter. It also contained a fortune on a small slip of paper which reflected the Japanese temple tradition of random fortunes.

FC Made in JapanFortune cookies were brought to the United States by Japanese immigrants who modified the original cookie design. These immigrants primarily settled in the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas of California and sold fortune cookies in local Japanese bakeries.

Once the fortune cookie reached the U.S. there was some confusion as to where and who actually invented the fortune cookie. Since it was new to the U.S., some claim that Makoto Hagiwara, a Japanese immigrant who oversaw the construction of the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco, and served fortune cookies to visitors as early as 1907, actually invented the fortune cookie. However, the cookies Hagiwara handed out were in fact purchased from the Benkyodo Japanese bakery.

The popularity of fortune cookies didn’t begin to catch on until decades later. At that time the spread of fortune cookies in the U.S. was most likely due to Seiichi Kito, founder of the Fugetsu-do bakery who took the idea from the cookies sold in Japanese temples, modified it for the American taste, and sold them to restaurants. These cookies quickly established themselves and proved popular in Chinese restaurants in Los Angeles and San Francisco. The rest is history.

An American company attempted to introduce fortune cookies into Hong Kong in 1989 and Mainland China in 1992. Both efforts failed as fortune cookies were considered to be “too American.” In contrast, Americans consume the majority of the 3 billion fortune cookies consumed annually world-wide.

So, the next time you sit down for dinner, or get takeout from your favorite Chinese restaurant, the fortune cookie you’re given was invented in Japan, brought to the United States by Japanese immigrants, modified for American tastes, and given to you as part of your Chinese meal. Enjoy!

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