As many Americans know, fortune cookies are a quintessential part of the Chinese restaurant experience in the United States. Whether you’re dining in the restaurant or ordering take-out, you can always look forward to a fortune cookie at the end of your meal.
Whether you relish the sweet vanilla taste, find amusement in the cracking of the cookie, or just enjoy the inspirational messages inside, many Americans take delight in opening their fortune cookie after having Chinese food.
What you may not have known is that if you’re having a meal in China, you won’t be given a fortune cookie at the end of it. That’s right. Fortune cookies do not exist in China!
The exact origin of fortune cookies is unknown, and is in fact hotly contested. Here we present some of the theories of the history of the fortune cookie.
Theory 1: According to one theory of the fortune cookie’s mysterious origins, the delicacy was invented by Chinese immigrant David Jung in 1918 in Los Angeles, CA. Jung was the founder of the Hong Kong Noodle Company in Los Angeles. He supposedly witnessed beggars and homeless people near his shop. As a “sweet” gesture to them, he made cookies and handed them out for free on the streets. Inside, he included a strip of paper with an inspirational Bible passage written on it.
Theory 2: Another theory links the fortune cookie to Japanese immigrant Makoto Hagiwara, the designer of the renowned Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, CA.
Hagiwara was supposedly an avid gardener until he was fired by an anti-Japanese mayor. While this was a difficult time for Hagiwara, he was eventually reinstated by a different mayor later on. He wanted to express his appreciation to those who stood by him and supported him, so he made a cookie with a thank you note inside. After giving them out to his friends who supported him, the story goes that he started serving them at the Japanese Tea Garden.
Theory 3: The turn of the 20th century was a time of many neighborhood and city renovations, including San Francisco’s Chinatown.
A plan was created to transform Chinatown into a popular tourist attraction, where tourists could enjoy Chinese decorations, architecture, and food. However, the restaurants supposedly did not have desserts to offer their guests. A third theory claims that to fulfill this need, a worker at the Kay Heong Noodle Factory in San Francisco invented the fortune cookie. While the flat cookie was still warm, it was folded around a small piece of paper that contained a handwritten prediction or a nugget of Chinese wisdom.
Theory 4: China was occupied by the Mongols in the 13th and 14th centuries. The Chinese hid sayings inscribed with the date of their revolution inside the traditional moon cakes. The moon cakes were handed out to the revolutionaries, and the instructions inside coordinated the uprising that led to the successful creation of the Chinese Ming Dynasty. As part of the Moon Festival in China, cakes with sayings inside of them started to be handed out. According to this theory, the Chinese 49ers invented the fortune cookie when building the American Railways from the Sierra Nevada to California. When the annual Moon Festival came around, they did not have moon cakes to enjoy. So they supposedly improvised and instead used hard cookies with the messages inside.
Theory 5: A fifth theory links the fortune cookie not to California in the 20th century, but to Japan in the 19th. According to research by Japanese researcher Yasuko Nakamatchi, there is a Japanese block print from 1878 that depicts a man preparing a fortune cookie using the same method that Japanese bakeries in Kyoto currently use.
Chinese restaurants in the US became popular during World War II, and since desserts were not the Chinese’s strong suit, they served fortune cookies with meals—a tasty and economical option for the restaurants. When Japanese Americans were forced into internment camps, the bakeries where they prepared fortune cookies went out of business. This theory purports that Chinese entrepreneurs stepped in to fill the void, and by the end of the war, fortune cookies became so strongly associated with Chinese food in the US.If you know any fun facts about food, have interesting tidbits about other cultures, have favorite dishes that you want to share with others, or you want to learn any of the above, create an account on Konversai—a social conversation platform that allows for knowledge sharing with anyone, anywhere, about any topic imaginable. You never know what you might learn simply by joining Konversai. The possibilities are endless!
Have a favorite fortune cookie message or inspirational quote? Share them with us in the comments below!
2. Rhodes, Jesse. (2011). Cracking Open the History of Fortune Cookies. Smithsonian.