16 January 2008

Traditional Fortune Cookie History Crumbles

Food historians have long known that the fortune cookies dispensed in nearly every Chinese-American restaurant are not a Chinese custom. Indeed, they were unknown in China until the last couple of decades.

Culinary histories instead called fortune cookies a California invention of the early 1900s. The story I recall reading attributed them to David Jung or Tsung, owner of the Hong Kong Noodle Company of Los Angeles, with fortunes written by a Presbyterian minister or his wife around 1918. Googling tells me there's a rival claim from the family of Makoto Hagiwara of the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco, working a few years earlier.

Today's New York Times reports on the research of Yasuko Nakamachi, a food historian earning her doctorate at Kanagawa University, who found antecedents for the American fortune cookie in Japan. Reporter Jennifer 8. Lee writes:

As she researched the cookie’s Japanese origins, among the most persuasive pieces of evidence Ms. Nakamachi found was an illustration from a 19th-century book of stories, “Moshiogusa Kinsei Kidan.” [Detail from the illustration show above, courtesy of the Times.]

A character in one of the tales is an apprentice in a senbei store. In Japan, the cookies are called, variously, tsujiura senbei (“fortune crackers”), omikuji senbei (“written fortune crackers”), and suzu senbei (“bell crackers”).

The apprentice appears to be grilling wafers in black irons over coals, the same way they are made in Hogyokudo and other present-day bakeries. A sign above him reads “tsujiura senbei” and next to him are tubs filled with little round shapes — the tsujiura senbei themselves.

The book, story and illustration are all dated 1878. . . .

In a work of fiction by Tamenaga Shunsui, who lived between 1790 and 1843, a woman tries to placate two other women with tsujiura senbei that contain fortunes.
The American fortune cookie is smaller than the kind now baked by specialty firms in Japan, with more vanilla in the dough and the printed message is inside the wafer instead of tucked into the outer fold.

Nakamachi argues, and persuasively so, that Japanese immigrants brought the recipes and equipment for that sort of cookie to California. Japanese-American cooks often worked for Chinese restaurants, which were more numerous and successful than Japanese restaurants, and the cooks and restaurateurs developed the fortune cookie we know for American tastes. So the treat is definitely a Californian hybrid, but one with even more complex roots than people had thought.

Fortune cookies continue to evolve, of course. In my childhood, I don't remember them offering anything but fortunes. Our culture's increased acceptance of gambling and greater interest in Asia mean that now I never see fortunes without "lucky numbers" and some "learn Chinese" phrases as well.

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