Fortune cookies have been the eagerly anticipated ending to many a Chinese meal for a long time, but probably not as long as you think. The fortune cookie we all know today has only been in existence for about a hundred years. When you take into account thousands of years of written Chinese history, a century is just a drop in the bucket. In fact, the modern fortune cookie wasn’t even invented in China. In this newsletter we will explore the birth of the fortune cookie, tracing it’s development from fourteenth century China to 20th century California. Then, as an added bonus, we’ll learn how to make our own fortune cookies from scratch!
To truly understand the cultural origins of the fortune cookie, we must go back in time more than six hundred years, to an era when the Mongols occupied China. The largest obstacle the Chinese faced in mounting a successful rebellion against the Mongols wasn’t manpower or willingness, it was coordination; there was no way for Chinese revolutionaries to establish a date for the revolution to begin, and communicate this date to the people, without alerting the Mongols. Then one day a Chinese revolutionary named Chu Yuan Chang had a clever idea.
Every year, during the Moon festival, Taoist priests would distribute moon cakes to the people. The moon cakes were made from Lotus Nut paste, which the Mongols had no taste for. So Chu Yuan Chang and his compatriots hid a message, communicating the date for the revolution, in the moon cakes, safe in the knowledge that no Mongol would care to find out what was inside. They then dressed as Taosit priests and traveled from town to town, distributing the message right under the Mongols’ noses. The successful revolution which followed formed the foundation for the Ming Dynasty. But revolutionary messages hidden in Lotus Nut paste cakes are a long way from fortunes and tidings of luck hidden in a crunchy, egg based cookie. So what happened?
After the revolution, hiding messages in Moon cakes became a part of Chinese tradition, these messages were charms for luck or good fortune. When Chinese immigrants started coming to America they brought this tradition with them. However, Lotus Nut paste was pretty hard to come by in turn of the century America. Many claim that these immigrants then created the first modern fortune cookies, whose happy messages offered a tiny relief from the terrible conditions the immigrants labored under. The first commercial use of the fortune cookie was undertaken not by a Chinese immigrant, but by a Japanese immigrant.
In the early nineteen-hundreds, Makoto Hagiwara started serving fortune cookies with thank-you notes in them to his customers at the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park. Then, in 1915, when the World’s Fair came to San Francisco, the trend was introduced to Americans from all over the country. Of course, others have tried to claim they too “invented” the fortune cookie. A Los Angeles company claimed they invented the cookies in 1918 as a way cheer up the many unemployed after the first world war, but the claim was dismissed in court. The fact is, fortune cookies weren’t so much “invented” as evolved over hundreds of years and through the strains of new lands. Fortune cookies were made by hand until 1964, when the process was automated. Once they could be mass produced, fortune cookies quickly spread, and since then fortune cookies have steadily gained popularity in the United States, Canada and Mexico. In recent years a factory has even been opened in the UK. Intrestingly, attempts to start fortune cookie production in China failed, and the treat has never caught on in the country of its forebearers. The largest fortune cookie manufacturer in the world is currently in Queens, NY, and is so well automated that it has a staff of only sixty people.
The thousands of different messages which can be found inside the cookies have been penned by an unknown number of people from any number of countries, which seems only appropriate for a dessert with such a rich, multinational history. Today, fortune cookies come in multiple languages, and different companies make fortune cookies with humorous, educational, traditional and even racy messages inside, several governments have even made fortune cookie messages part of their anti-drug campaigns. Many companies today also make custom fortune cookies, with the customer’s messages inside.
Mrs. Lin’s Kitchen can also provide you with fortune cookies, which we sell in our Grocery department. We also carry a line of fortune cookie boxes in our Gift department. These delightful gifts are small, satiny lined paper boxes that borrow their shape from the modern fortune cookie, and come in a variety of patterns and colors. Mrs. Lin’s Kitchen sells the fortune cookie boxes in sets of three, and you can mix and match your choice of boxes to design your own set. The colorful fortune cookie boxes are perfect as change purses, or for holding business cards, knick-knacks and other small items.
Now that you’ve learned about the long, strange history of the fortune cookie, why not try making your own? They’re easy to make, and can say anything you want them to. Homemade fortune cookies are a great way to thank people or wish them well, a few people have even proposed with fortune cookies!
The first step is to cut paper for your messages. Cut strips of paper two inches long and 1/2 inch wide. You can write anything you want on these, be creative! In fact, you can put anything at all into a fortune cookie if it’s small enough. You can roll up slightly larger pieces of paper, or put in small pieces of jewelry.
Now get your ingredients together. You’ll need the whites of 3 eggs, 3/4 of a cup of sugar, 1/2 a cup of butter, 1/4 teaspoon of vanilla, a pinch of salt, a cup of flour, 2 tablespoons of water and finally one tablespoon of crushed tea leaves or instant tea powder for color and a richer flavor. Mix all of these ingredients and then let them chill for about half an hour. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
Spread a spoonful of dough on a greased cookie pan for each cookie, try and spread them very thin, with a diameter of about three inches. Cook them for five minutes, or until the edges just start to turn lightly brown. Then quickly place your message in the center of the disk, and fold the cookie in half. Hold the round edge of the semi-circle in one hand and use the other hand to push in on the flat, folded edge. This will give your cookie the unique fortune cookie shape. Remember, it may seem hard at first, but with a little practice you’ll see just how easy it really is! Once your fortune cookies have cooled you should store them in an airtight container.
Since you have to shape the cookies before they cool, it’s important not to try and make too many at once. Start off making one or two at a time and then see how you feel about making more. With a little practice you’ll be making fortune cookies like a pro! Remember, Mrs. Lin’s Kitchen can provide you with any ingredients or tools you may be missing.
Now that you’ve learned about the rich history of the fortune cookie, and how to make your own, we hope you’ll appreciate this delicious after dinner treat even more!
OUR 2005 NEWSLETTERS
Fortune Cookies: The Real San Fransisco Treat
Full Of Fortune
All About Sushi (part II)
Secret Lives Of Geisha
Specialty Japanese Cookware
Rice The Golden Grain
Summer Wedding Gift Guide
Washi Paper Production and Uses
Symbols of Happiness and Longevity in Asian Culture
Bamboo – A Versatile Plant
Symbolism in Asian Motifs and Patterns