Most of us enjoy a fortune cookie after a meal in a Chinese restaurant. The crisp cookie is usually made from flour, sugar, vanilla, and sesame seed oil with a piece of paper inside, a “fortune,” on which is printed an aphorism or a prophecy. The message may also include a Chinese phrase with translation and/or a list of lucky numbers used by some as lottery numbers. However, fortune cookies are not a tradition in China.
The exact origin of fortune cookies is unclear, though various immigrant groups in California claim to have popularized them in the early 1900s. They most likely originated with Japanese immigrants to the US in the late 1800s or early 1900s.
As far back as the 1800s, a cookie very like the modern fortune cookie was made in Kyoto, Japan; and there is a Japanese temple tradition of random fortunes, called omikuji. The Japanese version of the cookie is a bit larger, made of darker dough, and contains sesame and miso rather than vanilla and butter. They were generally eaten with tea.
The cookie is easy to trace from World War II. At that time they were a regional specialty, served in California Chinese restaurants, and known as “fortune tea cakes.” They were discovered by soldiers and sailors on their way back from the Pacific Theater. When these veterans returned home, they would ask their local Chinese restaurants to serve fortune cookies and thus, the cookies rapidly spread across the country.
There are approximately 3 billion fortune cookies made each year around the world, the vast majority of them for consumption in the US. The largest manufacturer of the cookies is in Brooklyn, New York. They make over 4.5 million fortune cookies per day. Many smaller companies will also sell custom fortunes. But the crisp fortune cookies have spread around the world, served in Chinese restaurants in Britain, Mexico, Italy, France and elsewhere. But there is one place where fortune cookies are conspicuously absent: China.
The non-Chinese origin of the fortune cookie is illustrated in Amy Tan’s 1989 novel The Joy Luck Club, in which a pair of immigrant women from China find jobs at a fortune cookie factory in America. They are amused by the unfamiliar concept of a fortune cookie but, after several hilarious attempts at translating the fortunes into Chinese, come to the conclusion that the cookies contain not wisdom but “bad instruction.”
There are also multi-cultural versions of the fortune cookie. For instance, the “Mexican” version of the fortune cookie is called the “Lucky Taco.” It’s a red taco-shaped cookie with a fortune inside.
Wikipedia says fortune cookies have become an iconic symbol in American culture, inspiring many products, such as jewelry. Fortune cookie toilet paper, with words of wisdom that appear when the paper is moistened, has become popular among university students in Italy and Greece.
Moistened? Really? Why?
Fortune cookies are cited in the popular American fantasy comedy film Freaky Friday, in which the fate found in the cookie promotes the theme of the film.
You can find many lists of fortune cookie messages online. Here are a few of my favorites:
–Ignore previous cookie.
–Help! I’m being held prisoner in a Chinese bakery!
–I can’t believe you’re about to eat my tiny home.
–Plan to be spontaneous tomorrow.