Fortune cookies are a beloved treat that many people associate with Chinese American restaurants. These small, crispy cookies are often served at the end of a meal and contain a slip of paper with a “fortune” inside. But there’s more to them than meets the eye. From their surprising origin to the unique recipe, fortune cookies have a rich and fascinating history worth exploring.
Fortune cookies are a staple of Chinese American cuisine, but it’s believed that they actually originated in Japan. A Japanese cracker called tsujiura senbei can be traced back to 19th-century Kyoto. This cracker was made with sesame and miso, and contained a small paper fortune tucked into its folds.
These crackers arrived in the U.S. with the Japanese immigrants who came to Hawaii and California after the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which created a demand for cheap labor to replace the Chinese immigrants who were forced out.
A lot of the Japanese immigrants who moved to the U.S. settled in San Francisco and Los Angeles. The fortune cookie recipe from Kyoto came with them, and the treats started to pop up in bakeries in San Francisco and Los Angeles in the early 1900s.
The Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park is often credited as the first place in the country to sell the modern-day fortune cookie. The food’s exact origins are still a subject of debate, with multiple sources claiming to have invented the cookie around the same time, including three businesses in Los Angeles: the Fugetsu-Do confectionary shop, Japanese snack manufacturer Umeya, and the Hong Kong Noodle Company.
Fortune cookies have always had a relatively simple recipe. While the original Japanese crackers were savory and contained sesame oil and miso, most cookies you’ll find today are made with sugar, flour, vegetable shortening, water, vanilla, and food coloring.
After the batter has been mixed, it’s used to form flat, thin circles on a hot baking tray. The cookies only need to bake for a few minutes before they’re fully cooked and ready to be shaped.
After baking, the fortune cookies are removed from the oven and immediately folded into the traditional curved shape while they’re still hot and pliable; this is also when paper fortunes are slipped inside. The process must be completed quickly, as it doesn’t take long for the desserts to harden. The folded cookies are then cooled before being packaged and shipped to restaurants and retailers.
Today, most fortune cookies are made by machine, but some artisanal bakers still whip them up by hand. There are also different variations in the recipe: Though some fortune cookies come in different colors and flavors, they’ll all typically have a subtle hint of vanilla.
It’s difficult to estimate the exact number of fortune cookies made annually, as they’re produced by many different manufacturers and small-scale bakers. However, it’s safe to say that fortune cookies are a popular treat. Some estimates claim that around 3 billion fortune cookies are produced every year—according to the Museum of Food and Drink, one Brooklyn-based factory alone makes 4.5 million each day. Though the U.S. leads the world in fortune cookie production and consumption, the crunchy confections are served in Chinese restaurants elsewhere in the world as well.
Wonton Food Inc., based in Brooklyn, is the largest manufacturer of fortune cookies in the world. The company was founded in 1973 by Ching Sun Wong, who immigrated from China to the U.S. in the 1960s. He started the company in a store’s basement. Now, Wonton Food Inc.’s various plants produce a wide variety of the treats, including the traditional vanilla ones as well as flavored cookies like chocolate and citrus.
Wonton Food Inc. has about 15,000 fortunes in a database it uses for all its cookies. Donald Lau, former vice president and chief financial officer Wonton Food, wrote most of those fortunes as part of his job when he first started with the company. He would find inspiration throughout the day in everything from the newspaper to subway signs. Lau eventually stopped writing new fortunes after he developed writer’s block.
Yang’s Fortunes, Inc., a fortune cookie company based in San Francisco, has a database of about 5000 fortunes it uses in their cookies.
After Lau decided to stop writing fortunes regularly, Wonton Food Inc. began hiring freelance writers every couple of years to create new fortunes. Other companies that produce fortune cookies also hire writers to generate new ideas.
These gigs aren’t advertised regularly—so keep an eye out if you’d like to add this job to your portfolio. Fortune cookie writers are typically hired as freelancers and don’t get paid a lot, but it would be pretty fun to come across one of your own fortunes one day.