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Invented in California: The Fortune Cookie

Invented in California: The Fortune Cookie

Despite popular belief, these treats didn't originate in China. They gained popularity—and are said to have been invented—in California. Team


4 min read

June 13, 2023

After enjoying a heavy meal of chow mein at a Chinatown in California, 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 aren’t Chinese 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. Let us dive into this complex chain of events, leading us all the way back to the Fortune Cookie origin

There is a lot of talk concerning the true origin of the fortune cookie, where was it made and where does it come from?

Was the Fortune Cookie made in America?

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 invention of fortune cookies, aside from rumblings that they 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 small 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). 

Many historians trace the origins of this cookie back to Kyoto, Japan.

So Where can we trace the origins of the fortune cookie? 

The earliest traces of the history of fortune cookies is near Kyoto, Japan. Historians have found the ancestor of the fortune cookie of today, in a generations-old bakery near a Shinto Shrine just outside of Kyoto. They even managed to find an image on a woodblock of a Japanese street vendor grilling these cookies, dating back to 1878. Although these cookies were larger and darker, prepared with sesame and miso instead of the regular butter and vanilla flavors, it is highly likely that this is the very origin of fortune cookies

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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. Whichever may be the case, the fortune cookie was soon spreading like wildfire, and fast forward to the present, can be found in almost any Chinese restaurant. 

Some believe the cookie started to get popular right here, the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park.

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. Regardless of whether or not you think the prognostication from the fortune cookie is real, it remains a fun experience for anybody. 

Making fortune cookies is so very simple, you’ll find yourself preparing them more often.

How to make your own Fortune Cookie 

Looking back at fortune cookie history, they were certainly not as simple to prepare as they are today. These delicate confections were made by hand, grilled by flames. And as with time, most recipes change and transform to suit the preferences of the modern world, and so did the fortune cookies. 

Today, all you need to make these crispy cookies is only a few ingredients and an oven. Using egg whites, vanilla extract, flour, sugar, and salt. If you want to add in little messages written on a piece of paper, opt for edible paper, and non-toxic ink. This way, you will be able to consume the paper after having read your fortune, along with the yummy cookie. 

Real or not, reading these tiny messages inside the vanilla-flavored cookie is still a fun little game to play.

To close off this interesting look back at how the fortune cookie was made, if you are still wondering, “Are fortune cookies real?” that is totally up to your own interpretation. Whether or not you think it is a coincidence that the piece of paper inside these cookies predicted something in your life, no one can truly give you an answer, it is simply part of the mystery of life.

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