Who would have thunk it? According to an extraordinary story in the New York Times by Jennifer 8. Lee, fortune cookies are more like Toyotas than Fords. That is, they originated near Kyoto, Japan, not in America's Chinatowns—and certainly not in China.
So many questions abound. Who discovered this? And, to paraphrase a lyric from a Talking Heads song, "You may ask yourself, 'How did they get here?'" And, why are fortune cookies like pizza?
The answers after the jump:
Who made this amusingly shocking discovery? Yasuko Nakamachi, a folklore and history graduate student in Japan. She discovered handmade fortune cookies being made on black "kata" grills at Sohonke Hogyokudo, a bakery outside Kyoto. When Nagamachi started doing research, she discovered illustrations of fortune cookies in a book published in 1878.
How did they get to the United States?
Like pizza, fortune cookies went from American ethnic specialty to mainstream food item as a result of World War II. In the case of pizza, GIs came back from Europe hungry for what they tasted when they were stationed in Italy. Fortune cookies, according to Lee, had a sort of similar arc, but with soldiers returning from active duty in the Far East:
The cookie’s path is relatively easy to trace back to World War II. At that time they were a regional specialty [Just like pizza was at the time in New York City; New Haven, Connecticut; and Trenton, New Jersey. —Ed.], 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.
Last question: If fortune cookies (or "fortune tea cakes," as they were called back then) are Japanese in origin, how did they make their way to Chinese restaurants in California? Nakamichi isn't sure, but Gary Ono, the grandson of the founder of one of the oldest fortune cookie bakeries in San Francisco, has his own theory: "At one point the Japanese must have said, fish head and rice and pickles must not go over well with the American population."
The moral of the story: If you can't sell fish heads, switch to fortune cookies.
Final questions for Serious Eaters: What's the weirdest fortune you've ever gotten in a fortune cookie? Have you ever carried around a fortune because you loved what it said so much?
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