|Main ingredients||Flour, sugar, vanilla, and oil|
A fortune cookie is a crisp and sugary cookie usually made from flour, sugar, vanilla, and sesame seed oil with a piece of paper inside, a "fortune", on which is an aphorism, or a vague prophecy. The message inside may also include a Chinese phrase with translation and/or a list of lucky numbers used by some as lottery numbers; since relatively few distinct messages are printed, in the recorded case where winning numbers happened to be printed, the lottery had an unexpectedly high number of winners sharing a prize. Fortune cookies are often served as a dessert in Chinese restaurants in the United States and other Western countries, but are not a tradition in China. The exact origin of fortune cookies is unclear, though various immigrant groups in California claim to have popularized them in the early 20th century. They most likely originated from cookies made by Japanese immigrants to the United States in the late 19th or early 20th century. The Japanese version did not have the Chinese lucky numbers and was eaten with tea.
As far back as the 19th century, a cookie very similar in appearance to the modern fortune cookie was made in Kyoto, Japan; and there is a Japanese temple tradition of random fortunes, called omikuji. The Japanese version of the cookie differs in several ways: they are a little bit larger; are made of darker dough; and their batter contains sesame and miso rather than vanilla and butter. They contain a fortune; however, the small slip of paper was wedged into the bend of the cookie rather than placed inside the hollow portion. This kind of cookie is called tsujiura senbei (辻占煎餅) and is still sold in some regions of Japan, especially in Kanazawa, Ishikawa. It is also sold in the neighborhood of Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine in Kyoto.
Makoto Hagiwara of Golden Gate Park's Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco is reported to have been the first person in the U.S. to have served the modern version of the cookie when he did so at the tea garden in the 1890s or early 1900s. The fortune cookies were made by a San Francisco bakery, Benkyodo.
David Jung, founder of the Hong Kong Noodle Company in Los Angeles, has made a competing claim that he invented the cookie in 1918. San Francisco's Court of Historical Review attempted to settle the dispute in 1983. During the proceedings, a fortune cookie was introduced as a key piece of evidence with a message reading, "S.F. Judge who rules for L.A. Not Very Smart Cookie". A federal judge of the Court of Historical Review determined that the cookie originated with Hagiwara and the court ruled in favor of San Francisco. Subsequently, the city of Los Angeles condemned the decision.
Seiichi Kito, the founder of Fugetsu-do of Little Tokyo in Los Angeles, also claims to have invented the cookie. Kito claims to have gotten the idea of putting a message in a cookie from Omikuji (fortune slip) which are sold at temples and shrines in Japan. According to his story, he sold his cookies to Chinese restaurants where they were greeted with much enthusiasm in both the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas. Thus Kito's main claim is that he is responsible for the cookie being so strongly associated with Chinese restaurants.
Up to around World War II, fortune cookies were known as "fortune tea cakes"—likely reflecting their origins in Japanese tea cakes.
Fortune cookies moved from being a confection dominated by Japanese-Americans to one dominated by Chinese-Americans sometime around World War II. One theory for why this occurred is because of the Japanese American internment during World War II, which forcibly put over 100,000 Japanese-Americans in internment camps, including those who had produced fortune cookies. This gave an opportunity for Chinese manufacturers.
Fortune cookies before the early 20th century were all made by hand. However, the fortune cookie industry changed dramatically after the fortune cookie machine was invented by Shuck Yee from Oakland, California. The machine allowed for mass production of fortune cookies which subsequently allowed the cookies to drop in price to become the novelty and courtesy dessert many Americans are familiar with after their meals at most Chinese restaurants today.
Rumors that fortune cookies were invented in China are seen as false. In 1989, fortune cookies were reportedly imported into Hong Kong and sold as "genuine American fortune cookies". Wonton Food attempted to expand its fortune cookie business into China in 1992, but gave up after fortune cookies were considered "too American".
There are approximately 3 billion fortune cookies made each year around the world, the vast majority of them used for consumption in the United States. The largest manufacturer of the cookies is Wonton Food Inc., headquartered in Brooklyn, New York. They make over 4.5 million fortune cookies per day. Another large manufacturer are Baily International in the Midwest and Peking Noodle in the Los Angeles area. There are other smaller, local manufacturers including Tsue Chong Co. in Seattle, Keefer Court Food in Minneapolis and Sunrise Fortune Cookie in Philadelphia. Many smaller companies will also sell custom fortunes.
Manufacturing processes vary between plants but they generally follow the same procedure. The ingredients (typically made with a base of flour, sugar, vanilla, and sesame seed oil) are mixed in a large tank and squirted onto fast moving trays. These function like a conveyor belt and are heated to cook the dough. Cookies are compressed with round hot plates to shape and cook them. The cookies bake for approximately one minute and are reshaped. They can be mechanically shaped or folded by hand. When automated, a machine folds the cookie into the right orientation with the fortune inside. Cooled and hardened cookies are sealed in plastic wrappers, which are then inspected before being sent to be served.
Fortune cookies are used for marketing. For example, the film Kung Fu Panda 3 was promoted by putting quotes from the protagonist of the film on fortune cookie slips. Lotteries have also been advertised by suggesting lottery number picks on fortune cookie slips.
Cookies from different manufacturers have somewhat different nutritional content. One cookie is around 20-30 calories and 5-7 grams of total carbohydrates per cookie. Most cookies contain around 3 grams of sugar, but some have no sugar. They can have between 8 milligrams and 2 milligrams of sodium, and may contain significant (compared to their size) amounts of iron or protein. Their small size means they have little nutritional value overall.
Around the world
Fortune cookies, while largely an American item, have been served in Chinese restaurants in Brazil, Canada, France, India, Italy, Mexico, United Kingdom, as well as other countries. In Peru they're served in the chifas, Chinese-Peruvian fusion food restaurants.
There are also multi-cultural versions of the fortune cookie. For instance, the Mexican version of the fortune cookie is called the "Lucky Taco", it is a red taco-shaped cookie with a fortune inside.
There is also an Italian version called the "Lucky Canoli".
The fortune cookie, although thought to be Chinese, is actually Japanese. The original cookie is cooked with a darker batter and is seasoned with miso and topped with sesame seeds.
Fortune cookies are sometimes viewed as a stereotype of East Asians by Westerners. "I think it does go to what people think when they think of Asians. They think of food. Because that is really their only point of contact, or awareness, with the Asian-American community." said Andrew Kang, senior staff attorney at the Asian-American Institute in Chicago. The Asian American Journalists Association discourages associating ethnic foods with Asian Americans in news coverage.
Translations of name
Globally, the cookies are generally called by the English term fortune cookies, being American in origin.
There is no single accepted Chinese name for the cookies, with a large variety of translations being used to describe them in the Chinese language, all of which being more-or-less literal translations of the English "fortune cookie". Examples include: 幸运籤饼 xìngyùn qiān bǐng "good luck lot cookie", 籤语饼 qiān yǔ bǐng "fortune words cookie", 幸运饼 xìngyùn bǐng "good luck cookie", 幸运籤语饼 xìngyùn qiān yǔ bǐng "lucky fortune words cookie", 幸运甜饼 xìngyùn tián bǐng "good luck sweet cookie", 幸福饼干 xìngfú bǐnggān "good luck biscuit", or 占卜饼 zhānbǔ bǐng "divining cookie".
In popular culture
The non-Chinese origin of the fortune cookie is humorously illustrated in Amy Tan's 1989 novel The Joy Luck Club, in which a pair of immigrant women from China find jobs at a fortune cookie factory in America. They are amused by the unfamiliar concept of a fortune cookie but, after several hilarious attempts at translating the fortunes into Chinese, come to the conclusion that the cookies contain not wisdom but "bad instruction".
Fortune cookies have become an iconic symbol in American culture, inspiring many products. There are fortune cookie-shaped jewelry, a fortune cookie-shaped Magic 8 Ball, and silver-plated fortune cookies. Fortune cookie toilet paper, with words of wisdom that appear when the paper is moistened, has become popular among university students in Italy and Greece.
There is a common joke in the United States involving fortune cookies that involves appending "between the sheets" or "[except] in bed" to the end of the fortune, usually creating a sexual innuendo or other bizarre messages (e.g., "Our greatest glory is not in never falling but in rising every time we fall [in bed]"). A gallows humor variation to this joke involves appending the phrase "in jail" to the end of the fortune.
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