Chinese Fortune Cookies Aren’t Actually Chinese

But they do reveal a lot about the history of Chinese food in America. Pretty impressive for a tasteless dessert.

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Jan 28 2017, 7:00pm

Photo via Flickr user Tim Ellis

By now, this being 2017 and the Internet existing and all, I think most people know that fortune cookies aren't the most authentic of Chinese customs.

But what you probably don't know is that fortune cookies come from a small town outside of Kyoto, that they reveal the history of how Chinese food came to dominate the American palate (there are more Chinese restaurants in the US than there are McDonald's), and can paint a damning critique of the American psyche.

Pretty impressive for a tasteless cookie almost exclusively produced by a single company in Brooklyn.

Let me paint a picture for you. Fukakusa is the home of the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine, one of the most prominent in Japan. Pilgrims come from all over the country to ring a pair of large bells while praying for health and good fortune. Around the shrine, a series of family bakeries sprang up, selling omikuji senbei ("fortune crackers") or tsujiura suzu ("bells with fortunes.") Their shape is supposed to evoke that of the temple bells and the fortunes acted as souvenirs for travellers.

READ MORE: This Chinese New Year Feast Is 'Fusion Food' Like You've Never Seen Before

The cookies were not widespread throughout Japan and remain very much a regional specialty. However, as the former New York Times journalist Jennifer 8. Lee discovered in her book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, in the late 19th century, an enterprising Japanese immigrant named Harigawa introduced the cookies to San Francisco.

He came to run the Japanese Tea Garden in the city's Golden Gate Park and as a way to entice customers, decided to bring over these senbei, which he sold as Japanese fortune teacakes. Not a baker, Hagiwara outsourced their production to Benkyodo, a small Japanese bakery in San Francisco's Japantown.

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Modern-day Japantown, San Francisco. Photo via Flickr user Karl Baron

As time went on, the cookies became more popular and a few Chinese restaurants started to buy from Benkyodo, hoping to pass the cookies off as a pan-Asian delicacy. However, it was only in the 1940s that the cookie made the jump and became firmly associated with the Chinese.

In 1942, as the US began to fight Japan in the Pacific, the staff at Benkyodo was interned. Within the space of a year, the entire Japanese community in San Francisco was rounded up and bussed to camps. The same happened to Japanese communities throughout the US.

Benkyodo was taken over by enterprising Chinese businessmen, whose fortunes had suddenly turned. During the Second World War, the Chinese—the only immigrant community in the US to be explicitly excluded (unless Trump gets his way)—went from being marginalised and shunted into Chinatown ghettos to being allies in the fight against fascism.

More importantly, Chinese food, which made a little meat go a long way with dishes like chop suey, suddenly became an attractive alternative to American staples, suffering heavily at the time due to wartime rationing (meat-and-two-veg looks pretty shit with no meat). This is how Chinese food, which had previously only been eaten by Chinese locals or avant garde bohemians willing to venture into Chinatown, began to reach the mainstream palate. The economy in San Francisco Chinatown quadrupled between 1941 and 1943.

Rationing and a desire to appeal to the mass market also pushed Chinese restaurateurs to innovate at this time, creating a cuisine sufficiently Westernised to not offend the American palate, but different enough to remain "exotic."

The fortune cookie's profile was on the up, too. American soldiers sent to fight in the Pacific Theatre in the Second World War arrived in cities with large Chinatowns such as LA and San Francisco, where they discovered the cookies. When the War ended and the soldiers returned to their hometowns and went to local Chinese restaurants, they demanded fortune cookies with their meals, believing them to be a common part of the cuisine. Perplexed, the Chinese owners called relatives and friends based on the West Coast and sourced the cookies. Large-scale factories sprang up to service the demand.

But to call them "fortune cookies" is slightly misleading. As Lee discovered when she interviewed the writers of the fortunes inside the cookies, your creativity hits a wall pretty quickly in this job. After all, as she noted, there are only so many things you can predict—love, business, or health.

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Photo via Flickr user Steve Harwood

Fortune cookie writers are also limited by the fact that Americans expect good fortunes. Customers complain to restaurants when they get a bad fortune and as such, companies peddling fortunes that are negative or ambiguous enough to be construed negatively quickly discover there is no demand for their product. It is ironic, therefore, that despite coining the phrase "that's the way the cookie crumbles," fortune cookies can also work as a metaphor for the fragility of the American ego.

In China, where fortunes and the concept of fortune-telling is more prevalent, it would be unthinkable to give only positive fortunes. There has to be balance and a negative fortune can be seen as giving a warning that forces preventative action. Without negative fortunes, there is no critical feedback.

Pushed into a corner by having to be universally positive and by the overall lack of things you can speculate on, American fortune cookie writers quickly struck on the idea of using proverbs, often translated directly from the Chinese. When these ran dry, pithy but non-offensive cliches came to rule the day, which can explain why a lot of "fortunes" don't sound like fortunes at all. "Happiness is a full belly," for example, isn't going to do much for that situation with your boss or help you navigate Brexit.

READ MORE: Why So Many Chinese Restaurants in America Have Similar Names

Another unique feature of the American psyche that complicates fortune-writing is the fact that Americans always need new things. Diners at Chinese restaurants in the US don't want to receive the same fortune twice and as such, they must be cranked out at a ridiculous rate.

Donald Lau has been the sole fortune cookie writer at Wonton Foods Inc, the world's largest manufacturer of the cookies, for more than 30 years. At the height of his career, he was writing two or three fortunes a day—a target so high it caused him to suffer writer's block and downscale his output to just three fortunes a month.

This could go some way in explaining why it is that no one has managed to re-engineer the fortune cookie on a mass scale and sell it back to the Chinese. It's just far too American.