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Are fortune cookies really a Chinese tradition?

While they are mainstays in Chinese restaurants and are thought to be a centuries old tradition, they probably originate from Japan and became popular in the United States.

Fortune cookies weren’t even available in China until the late 80’s. In 1989 an entrepreneur began to import them as “Genuine American Fortune Cookies”; but the project was short-lived. “It seemed like a good idea at the time, but it just didn’t pan out. Fortune cookies are too American”, he later said.

In 2004 a Japanese researcher, named Yasuko Nakamachi, came to the conclusion that fortune cookies may originate from Japan. She found that bakeries around Kyoto have been making cookies resembling fortune cookies for centuries. They were bigger and browner than the ones we know now, and the messages were not stuffed inside, but wrapped around them. The researcher found a picture from 1878, on which a baker is seen making such a cookie.

fortune

The cookie’s American path is relatively easy to trace back to World War II (at that time they were served in California Chinese restaurants), but prior to the war the history is murky. It is uncertain who and when exactly invented them, although they were definitely sold in Asian restaurants around the early 1900’s.

When Derrick Wong, the vice president of the largest fortune cookie manufacturer in the world, Wonton Food was asked about the origins of fortune cookies, he noted:

“The Japanese may have invented the fortune cookie. But the Chinese people really explored the potential of the fortune cookie. It’s Chinese-American culture. It only happens here, not in China.”

Photo: flickr.com – Rick Harris | National Diet Library