After enjoying a heavy meal of chow mein, hot and sour soup, and sweet and sour pork, the check arrives accompanied by traditional Chinese cookies. Or, so we thought. As it turns out, these intriguing vanilla treats with fortunes tucked inside of them did not originate in China after all; they gained popularity—and are said to have been invented—in California. But the famous folded cookies have quite a controversial and complicated history, with both Los Angeles and San Francisco taking credit for their invention.
As the stories go, the history of fortune cookies in America traces back to the World War II era. In the years prior, little is known about the confection aside from rumblings that the cookie may have been served in Chinese restaurants across California under the name “fortune tea cakes”. But according to Japanese history and literature dating back to the 1800s, a form of the fortune cookie may have originally been introduced—but not popularized—in Japan.
So, it is very possible that the original fortune-cookie recipe came to California from Japan but was handed off to the state’s Chinese population during World War II—a time when many Chinese families had to step in and run businesses because Japanese families were placed in internment camps.
If this interpretation of history is true, then it is not surprising that many Californians who immigrated from Japan and China claim to have either invented or popularized fortune cookies. Among them are David Jung (the founder of Los Angeles’ Hong Kong Noodle Company) and Makoto Hagiwara (the famed landscape designer who oversaw the expansion of San Francisco’s Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park).
Los Angeles Fortune Cookies
Jung is thought to have popularized the fortune cookie in 1918. Several versions of his story exist, including one that states he used to fill these folded desserts with scripture and pass them out to unemployed men. Another version claims he invented the treats as appetizers to calm hungry patrons who were waiting for their entrées.
San Francisco Fortune Cookies
But others credit Hagiwara with popularizing the fortune cookie in 1909, when he was working in Golden Gate Park’s Japanese Tea Garden. It is said that he purchased these cookies from the local Benkyodo bakery and gave them to the garden’s visitors as a way of thanking them for coming. But another version of the story asserts that Hagiwara was fired in 1907 for being of Japanese descent but then was rehired, and as a token of gratitude, he gifted fortune cookies with thank-you notes inside to his supporters.
While it is still unclear who invented the fortune cookie—even after a Court of Historical Review ruling favored San Francisco as the creator—both Los Angeles’ Fugetsu-Do and San Francisco’s Benkyodo have discovered the original “kata” black-iron grills, which look astonishingly like the ones used by Kyoto bakeries to make fortune cookie–like desserts for centuries.
Regardless of the fortune cookie’s true origin, its popularity undoubtedly grew out of California, turning the treat into a true staple by the 1960s. Though the tasty desserts did not actually originate in China, there is something so comforting and satisfying about breaking open one of those bad boys after a filling meal of Chinese food. So, bring on the wise advice, encouraging phrases, and rare fortunes in our cookies.