The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food by New York Times reporter Jennifer 8. Lee. In today's paper, Lee wrote a fascinating article on the Japanese origins of the fortune cookie: The Riddle of the Fortune Cookie, Solved -- including an audio slide show and a video.
Here is the essence: similarly shaped cookies with a fortune on a slip of paper were made by one or a few shops in Japan in the 19th century. The origins of these predecessor cookies have recently been explored, says the article, by Yasuko Nakamachi, a graduate student from Japan. The picture -- one of many in the article -- shows a modern, larger Japanese fortune cookie next to a typical American-Chinese one.
Chinese restaurants in California bought them at Japanese bakeries and began to distribute them -- dessert is expected by American diners, but not particularly a Chinese tradition. "A number of immigrant families in California, mostly Japanese, have laid claim to introducing or popularizing the fortune cookie," writes Lee in the article. "Among them are the descendants of Makoto Hagiwara, a Japanese immigrant who oversaw the Japanese Tea Garden built in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in the 1890s. Visitors to the garden were served fortune cookies made by a San Francisco bakery, Benkyodo."
As a Chinese restaurant tradition, the cookies took off as follows:
And so we know the origin of a tradition! Read the article for lots more detail. Also check out Jennifer 8. Lee's blog posts: Fortune Cookies are really from Japan and How did Japanese fortune cookies end up in Chinese restaurants?
"The cookie’s path is relatively easy to trace back to World War II. At that time they were a regional specialty, served in California Chinese restaurants, where they were known as “fortune tea cakes.” There, according to later interviews with fortune cookie makers, they were encountered by military personnel on the way back from the Pacific Theater. When these veterans returned home, they would ask their local Chinese restaurants why they didn’t serve fortune cookies as the San Francisco restaurants did.
"The cookies rapidly spread across the country. By the late 1950s, an estimated 250 million fortune cookies were being produced each year by dozens of small Chinese bakeries and fortune cookie companies. One of the larger outfits was Lotus Fortune in San Francisco, whose founder, Edward Louie, invented an automatic fortune cookie machine. By 1960, fortune cookies had become such a mainstay of American culture that they were used in two presidential campaigns: Adlai Stevenson’s and Stuart Symington’s."