China Expats and Culture Blog
After finishing a meal at an American Chinese restaurant you probably expect to receive two things: the check and a handful of fortune cookies. (Do you know how to ask for the check in Chinese? Find out here.) Fortune cookies have somewhat of an ubiquitous presence in Chinese restaurants throughout the United States. It’s rather satisfying to crack open a cookie at the end of your meal and read your “lucky fortune” on the slip of paper inside. But while the Chinese have invented many things (including nail polish and toilet paper) it may surprise you to learn that the modern fortune cookie was, in fact, invented in America.
ORIGINS OF THE FORTUNE COOKIE
The exact origin of the fortune cookie is unknown. Some argue that the snack has Japanese origins, as a somewhat similar pastry was served at shrines and teahouses in Japan as early as the 1800s. It is thought that the tasty snack first came about in San Francisco in 1914, after a Japanese immigrant began distributing the cookies with “thank you” notes in them. These “thank you” notes were intended as tokens of gratitude for friends who stood with him through the economic hardship and discrimination of his early life in America.
An alternate origin story credits Los Angeles as the site of the fortune cookie’s invention. In this version of the story, David Jung, a Chinese immigrant residing in L.A, is thought to have created the cookie in order to uplift the spirits of the poor and homeless. In 1918, Jung handed out the cookies for free to the poor outside his shop and each cookie contained a strip of paper with an inspirational Bible passage printed on it.
An attempt to resolve the disputed origin of the fortune cookie occurred in 1983, when a federal judge ruled in a mock trial of San Francisco’s Court of Historical Review that the fortune cookie was in fact invented in San Francisco. This ruling, however, does not carry much formal legal significance and, as such, is not acknowledged by the city of Los Angeles. Yet, regardless of the fortune cookie’s true origin, the mere fact that a federal court judge ruled on it represents how much Americans value these crescent shaped snacks.
Fortune cookies first began to gain popularity in mainstream American culture during WWII. Chinese restaurants would serve them in place of desserts, as desserts were not popular in traditional Chinese cuisine. Today fortune cookies are inexplicably tied to Chinese-American culture. In fact, the largest fortune cookie manufacturer is located in the United States and it produces 4.5 million fortune cookies a day - a testament to the modern-day popularity of the snack. However, an attempt to introduce the fortune cookie to China in 1992 was a failure, and the cookie was cited for being "too American."
So while we may not know whether the fortune cookie derives from Japanese-Americans in San Francisco or Chinese-Americans in Los Angeles, we do know one thing- it is a delicious and fun treat. Although there may be more traditional Chinese dishes you could order to conclude your meal, none are more representative of the many ways in which Asian food culture has fused with that of the United States. So the next time you break open a fortune cookie and read a fortune about the many successes you should expect in your future, remember that the conclusion to your Chinese restaurant meal may not be as Chinese as you think.
(By the way, TutorMing has a Fortune Cookie app, which provides Chinese phrases in easy-to-digest morsels.)