Featured in Ripley's Believe It or Not!
Believe It or Not! the tasty fortune cookies that come with your Chinese take-out weren’t invented in China. The concept for the tiny after-dinner desserts actually originated in Japan and spread to America at the turn of the century!
Some bakeries outside of Kyoto, Japan, make what look like bigger, darker-colored fortune cookies that have messages inside their creases. These senbei, or “crackers” were invented in the late 19th century—if not earlier—and are still being made in Japan today.
In the early 1900s, Japanese immigrants in San Francisco and Los Angeles, California, made senbei at their bakeries. A few local Chinese restaurants lacked desserts on their menu, so they started procuring the Japanese crackers to sell to their own customers. It’s believed the cookies were first produced in America sometime between 1907 and 1914.
Their popularity really took off following World War II when veterans returned to the west coast after the conflict and asked for the treat when they visited their favorite Chinese eateries.
According to researcher Yasuko Nakamachi, fortune cookie production was likely taken over by Chinese-owned manufacturers during the war when Japanese bakeries closed and many of their owners were sent to Japanese-American internment camps.
By the late ‘50s, dozens of Chinese bakeries and fortune cookie companies were making an estimated 250 million cookies every year. In the ‘60s, a man named Edward Louie founded Lotus Fortune in San Francisco and created an automatic fortune cookie machine.
Despite their Japanese origin, fortune cookies became an iconic treat because of the Chinese-Americans who popularized them over the years. As of 2008, three billion fortune cookies were produced each year almost entirely in the United States. China does not serve them, but countries such as Britain, Mexico, Italy, and France do.
Wonton Food Inc., based in Queens, N.Y., produces an estimated 4.5 million fortune cookies per day. In the early ‘90s, Wonton tried to expand its business to China but failed. Some Chinese were so unaware of the cookies and their purpose they inadvertently ate the fortunes.
Wonton employs a Chief Fortune Writer to come up with new fortunes each year. Back in the ‘80s, fortune cookies typically resembled horoscopes, i.e., “You will be successful.” They evolved and these days often feature sayings that make people happy, such as “You have a natural grace and great consideration for others” and “Every exit is an entrance to new experiences.”
There is a team of Wonton Food employees that approves the fortunes before they’re released. The company also receives a lot of feedback, both good and bad, about its fortunes. One man thanked Wonton for a cookie that promised a new opportunity was coming his way (he landed a new job). Another customer criticized Wonton after her husband opened a fortune that suggested he would find love on his next business trip. In 2005, over 100 lottery players won $19 million after playing the “lucky numbers” on the back of Wonton fortunes, which resulted in an investigation.
Regardless of where fortune cookies originated, they are a delicious treat. But what we really want to know is how do they get the messages into the tiny treats? Wonton isn’t spilling. It’s an “ancient Chinese secret,” according to the company.
By Noelle Talmon, contributor for Ripleys.com