Everything you ever wanted to know about fortune cookies

With the launch of our Boxes of Fortune, we have suddenly become extra interested in the fortune cookie. Where are they made? Where did they come from? Why are they here? Should we trust them with our biggest decisions?

Fortune cookie

Like most things in life, reports vary, but they sure are fascinating sugary bundles of wonder.

Origins of the fortune cookie

They’re obviously from China, right? No, but you’ve read that article about them actually being American, yeah? Well, hold up, because the latest wisdom is that they’re a Japanese invention.

The Chinese link obviously comes from them being served in Chinese restaurants, but up until recently, the most convincing invention claims were from first generation American immigrants.

One legend has it that the designer of San Francisco’s Japanese Tea Garden served the cookie in the 1900s. Having fallen on tough times after being screwed over by the Mayor, and subsequently got back on his feet, Makoto Hagiwara sent the friends that helped him thank you notes hidden within cookies. He then started serving them regularly, and they were displayed at the Panama-Pacific Exhibition, San Francisco’s world fair.

But LA also has a claim. In 1918, David Jung, a Chinese immigrant, claimed to have invented the cookie to pass out to homeless people he saw, containing lines of scripture.

But the book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles contains evidence of a Japanese origin. Apparently there’s been a more savoury, darker version of the fortune cookie in Japan since the early 19th century, made with sesame and miso, rather than the more Western taste of vanilla and butter. In fact, there’s an etching dated 1878 showing someone making these cookies.

That could explain why up until the second world war, they were known as fortune tea cakes, which is a closer approximation of the Japanese name for them.

However, during the second world war, 100,000 Japanese people were interned by the US, and production was taken over in many cases by Chinese immigrants. These found their way into the thousands of chop suey restaurants in California, and with that, the American fortune cookie had arrived.

Modern day fortune cookies

Today, Wonton Foods is the largest worldwide producer of fortune cookies, contributing a large proportion of the 3 billion made each year. Their plant in Brooklyn allegedly makes 4.5 million every day.

No word on how many their Houston plant produces. Sadly this one is almost wholly known for the fact that a dead body was discovered in the fortune cookie machine. The coroners ruled ‘accidental death by multiple blunt force injuries’, so this tragic accident was literally death by fortune cookie.

In 1992, Wonton Foods attempted to export fortune cookies to China, but the project was a miserable failure, thanks to the local market deeming them “too American”.

Fortune cookies in TV and films

Lindsay Lohan and Jamie Lee Curtis taught us never to open an enchanted fortune cookie when you’re having an argument in a Chinese restaurant. In the original 1976 Freaky Friday, it was never explained how the body switch came about – it was the 2003 version that included that explanation.

In 1966, Jack Lemmon appeared in The Fortune Cookie, but to be honest, it’s not on Netflix, and the IMDB summary gives no indication as to what connection that might have to the post-meal snack.

That American pop culture barometer, The Simpsons, has featured fortune cookies a couple of times. In “The Last Temptation of Homer,” Homer gets a fortune saying “You will find happiness with a new love.” whilst trying to resist an affair.  In “Hunka-Hunka Burns in Love,”, Homer gets a job writing fortunes, after complaining about receiving sub-par fortunes such as “Every house has a bathroom”. His were far superior, including the peerless “You will be aroused by a shampoo commercial”.

Should you trust fortune cookies?

All signs point to yes, unless you’re playing the lottery. In 2005, 110 people played the same numbers, thanks to finding them in a fortune cookie. And who was at the root of it? Wonton Foods – at the time, their system for how they picked the numbers was to get workers to draw numbers out of a bowl and to then mass print them.

Whilst early fortune cookies included advice from the likes of Confucius, Aesop, or Ben Franklin, lottery numbers and jokes are now common in America. Wonton Foods has a database of over 10,000 fortunes, whilst in the original Japanese bakeries the numbers used are much smaller, but include such gems as “To ward off lower back pain or joint problems, undertake some at-home measures like yoga.”

Fortune cookie recipe

Here’s a simple recipe from the BBC

100g/3½oz plain flour
1½ tbsp cornflour
50g/1¾oz caster sugar
1 tsp salt
3 tbsp vegetable oil
3 free-range eggs, whites only
1 tsp water
1½ tsp vanilla extract
½ tsp almond extract
Preparation method
1. Preheat the oven to 170C/325F/Gas 3. Line a baking tray with a silicone mat. Write fortunes on pieces of paper about 6cm x 1cm/2½in x ½in.
2. Sift the flour and cornflour into a large bowl then add the sugar and salt and mix well. Using a wooden spoon, stir in the oil, egg whites, water and vanilla and almond extracts.
3. Place tablespoons of the mixture onto the silicone mat and use the back of a metal spoon to swirl out the mixture into 10cm/4in circles. 4. Leave space between each cookie as they will spread a little during cooking; you will get about five cookies onto the baking tray so will have to cook them in batches. Bake in the oven for 10-12 minutes. The outer edge of each cookie should turn golden brown and the cookies should be easy to remove with a spatula when cooked.
5. Place a fortune in the centre of each cookie and while the cookie is still soft and pliable, fold it in half and pinch the semi circular edges together to seal. Place the folded edge of the cookie onto the rim of a cup or glass and gently pull the two corners down, one on the inside of the cup and one on the outside, to form the classic fortune cookie shape. Set aside to cool and repeat with the remaining cookies.

Where can I get a fortune cookie featuring Snoop Dogg, Leslie Knope, Jeremy Corbyn or Beyoncé?

Well, buddy, it is your lucky day. The answer is here, here, here and here.