There’s no arguing that a lot of what we consider stereotypically Japanese actually came from elsewhere.
Japan has China to thank for the Japanese language, which is also where ramen is from. Tempura, konpeito, and castella cake came by way of the Portuguese; likewise, curry was introduced by the British. The gakuran and the sailor uniform were modeled after European military and naval uniforms, and radio calisthenics is from the good old US of A.
So you can imagine my surprise when I found out the reverse has also happened: fortune cookies, that staple of Chinese restaurants in the US, is almost certainly Japanese.
Japanese Fortune Cookies…
In Japan, fortune cookies go by the names tsujiura senbei, o-mikuji senbei, and suzu senbei. They’re slightly bigger, and the addition of miso and sesame makes them browner and savory instead of sweet. Otherwise, though, Japanese fortune cookies are pretty much identical to the mass-produced stuff.
Left: Japanese fortune cookies; Right: “Chinese” fortune cookies, made in Hong Kong, from a Korean grocery store down the road
If old tales are anything to go by, Japanese fortune cookies have been around since at least the 19th century. The following illustration, for example, was found in a book of stories that dates all the way back to 1878. Check out the unmistakable C-shaped cookies on the grill – and even more tellingly, the noren at the top that reads tsujiura senbei.
The sign is really old school; read it from right to left.
The other name for fortune cookies, o-mikuji senbei, is also a clue. Those little paper fortunes that you can get for a small fee at shrines and temples? Yep, they’re called o-mikuji. Kyoto literally has thousands of shrines and temples – one of the more famous being the Fushimi Inari shrine. Now is it mere coincidence that there are several shops in the area that still make fortune cookies by hand? I think not.
Spooning batter into the mold, lifting out the cookie, tucking in the fortune, and folding up the still-warm cookie.
But this is only half the story.
… and How They Became “Chinese”
The person who invented the “Chinese” fortune cookie is up for debate. Several people have put their hand up, but I reckon only two claims are worth serious consideration: some people believe it was Kito Seiichi of the Fugetsu-do shop in LA, and others believe it was Hagiwara Makoto of SF’s Japanese Tea Garden.
Both men were Japanese immigrants and likely knew about fortune cookies and how to make them – but my money’s on Hagiwara Makoto. As the story goes, he first made and served it alongside green tea in 1914. This modified, sweetened version was so popular that Hagiwara decided to get them made on a commercial scale. In 1918, Benkyodo stepped in to become the Japanese Tea Garden’s exclusive supplier of fortune cookies. Descendants on both sides corroborate the other’s story, which I think is as good as it’ll get in terms of evidence.
Left: the tea house at the Japanese Tea Garden; Right: Benkyodo Candy Factory
Soon, several other bakeries began to make and sell fortune cookies; Umeya, for example, supplied them to both Japanese- and Chinese-owned restaurants. The bombing of Pearl Harbor really put a spanner in the works though. Japanese-Americans were sent away to internment camps, which basically meant the end of many Japanese businesses.
Now that the competition had been taken out, Chinese businesses experienced a huge boom. Chinese restaurants still served fortune cookies, of course, and people just began to think of them as a Chinese thing. There was a strong anti-Japanese sentiment at the time, so I really don’t blame the Chinese for keeping mum and letting their customers believe what they wanted to believe.
In any case, although several Japanese bakeries did make a comeback after WWII, by that point fortune cookies were irrevocably Chinese. They were still as popular as ever, though: it was only a matter of time before it spread all over the US, and then all over the globe. Well, except for China, anyway. “Too American,” apparently.
Oh delicious irony.
Fortune Cookies Remixed
Nowadays there really aren’t any rules when it comes to fortune cookies. Just look at some of the varieties I found:
Purists, look away.
Well… not my thing to be honest, although I suppose there must be a market for them.
So, did you already know that fortune cookies are actually Japanese? Have you tried both Japanese and “Chinese” fortune cookies? Which did you prefer? What was the last fortune you got? Let us know in the comments!