8 Things You Might Not Know About Fortune Cookies
They’re so common, you might take them for granted. Those crunchy, mildly sweet cookies brought to you with the check at the end of a meal in a Chinese restaurant. You know that when you open them, whether you actually eat them or not, you’ll get a fortune, some advice, lucky numbers, or a new Chinese word.
But the seemingly simple (not quite) dessert has a complex history. And so on this National Fortune Cookie Day, we bring you eight things you might not know about fortune cookies.
You won’t find them in China
While Chinese restaurants all over the world serve fortune cookies, the ones in China don’t. In fact, the concept is so foreign, says TIME, that when Wonton Food Inc., one of the biggest purveyors of fortune cookies, tried to do business in China in the 1990s, diners kept eating the fortunes by mistake. In the end, the company decided it was too difficult to explain the concept, let alone get people to adopt it.
They might originally be Japanese
So you might think that makes fortune cookies quintessentially Chinese American. However, evidence shows they might actually be Japanese.
Researcher Yasuko Nakamachi found fortune cookie evidence in Japan that predates by decades the first appearance of fortune cookies in America, says journalist Jennifer 8. Lee. Among Nakamachi's pieces of evidence are multiple references to the cookies in Japanese literature and history, including an 1878 etching of a fortune cookie maker, as well as centuries-old family bakeries in Japan that make fortune cookie-like crackers, complete with paper fortunes.
Japanese-style fortune cookies are a bit different from their Chinese American counterparts. Made with sesame and miso rather than vanilla and batter, they’re browner and bigger. Plus the fortune is pinched in the fold rather than wedged inside.
Japanese restaurants in America might have been the first to serve them
By World War II, fortune cookies were a mainstay in California Chinese restaurants. They quickly spread across the country, and by 1960, were so common, they were distributed at the Democratic convention.
However, their history before WWII is fuzzy. The Japanese Tea Garden of Golden Gate Park apparently sold them beginning in the late 19th century, as did Fugetsudo, a family-run bakery also in San Francisco, and Umeya, an early mass producer of the cookies. However, Hong Kong Noodle, a Chinese-owned company, sold them as well.
It’s not clear how they became Chinese
In the 1920s and ‘30s, Asian immigrants had limited job prospects due to anti-Asian laws. Thus, many opted to open restaurants. Nakamachi surmises that those from Japan might have thought their cuisine too “foreign” for American palates and opened Americanized “chop suey” establishments instead, which served fortune cookies.
Then WWII began and Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps. As a result, Japanese-owned bakeries and restaurants were forced to close, and Chinese-owned businesses took over fortune cookie production and distribution.
There’s a database with 15,000 fortunes
Brooklyn-based Wonton Food is the biggest manufacturer of fortune cookies and messages worldwide. So where do they get all their messages? From a database of about 15,000 fortunes. Compare that to Yang’s Fortunes, Inc. in San Francisco, which has a database of about 5,000 messages. Meanwhile, Hogyokudo, a bakery in Japan, has used the same 23 messages for decades.
The Chief Fortune Writer at Wonton Food has writer’s block
Former corporate banker Donald Lau served as Chief Financial Officer and Chief Fortune Writer at Wonton Food for three decades. But then he developed writer’s block, creating just two or three messages a month as opposed to 100 a year. So in early 2017, he passed the fortune writing torch to the new official Chief Fortune Writer, James Wong.
Wonton Food and Yang’s Fortunes are multi-generation family businesses
Wong is the nephew of a founder of Wonton Food, as well as the son of one of the company’s industrial engineers. Lisa Yang, daughter of Yang’s Fortunes founder Steven Yang, took on fortune writing duties as a college student, editing nonsensical Chinese proverb translations and creating messages from scratch. Now a vice president at her family’s company, she still writes fortunes when she feels inspired.
110 people won the lottery in one day — thanks to fortune cookie numbers
Powerball officials thought something seemed fishy back in 2005 when 110 people in 29 states became second-place winners in one day. How did so many people all over the country get five out of six numbers right? Turns out they all got them from fortune cookies manufactured by, you guessed it, Wonton Food. The free fortune cookies were definitely worth the $100,000 to $500,000 prizes.